Battle to break the nation’s sugar addiction

FOOD labels could soon have to display the number of teaspoons of sugar in the product as food regulators muscle up to tackle the nation's growing obesity epidemic.

With more than two in three Australians overweight or obese, a report requested by Australian and New Zealand food ministers says consumers are confused and need help understanding sugar levels.

It reveals most Australians are eating well in excess of recommended 12 teaspoons of sugar a day for adults.

Teenage boys are the worst offenders consuming 38 teaspoons of sugar a day which makes up a quarter of their entire calorie intake.

Food labels could soon have to list how many teaspoons of sugar per serve.
Food labels could soon have to list how many teaspoons of sugar per serve.

Public Health Association chief Terry Slevin says confusion reins because there are more than 42 different types of sugar food manufacturers can list including honey and disaccharide.

The report proposes six options for solving the problem including using a picture of a teaspoon or sugar cube on food labels to indicate how much sugar is in each serve.

Another option would include using a shape or symbol like a stop sign or exclamation mark accompanied with text such as 'high in added sugars' on foods that have a sugar content that exceeds a certain threshold.

Clearly quantifying sugar in the nutritional information panel on the back of products and clearer identification of sugars in the ingredients list are other options.

A stop sign on food labels could indicate high sugar levels. Picture: iStock
A stop sign on food labels could indicate high sugar levels. Picture: iStock

The report also reveals food current labelling laws are using outdated guidelines from 2003 about how much sugar adults can consume.

Food companies can include information on their labels stating what percentage of the average daily allowance of sugar is in the food but the measurement used for this calculation is based on an outdated 2003 Australian Dietary Guidelines that allowed 17.5 per cent of energy to come from sugar.

Our current food guidelines don't use a percentage but instead call for sugar intake to be limited.

The World Health Organisation say people should consume less than 12 teaspoons of sugar a day and says less than six teaspoons is best.

UK health authorities want sugar intake limited to just six teaspoons a day and the US says less than 12 teaspoons a day.

Sugary soft drinks are the biggest culprit in sugar consumption, a 600ml bottle of Coke contains 16 teaspoons of sugar.

Two in three Australians are overweight or obese.
Two in three Australians are overweight or obese.

However, most Australians are unaware that even savory packaged foods like tomato sauce and curry pastes can contain hidden sugar.

Choice found last year that some Asian simmer sauces contain eight teaspoons of sugar per serve, tomato pasta sauce has over 2 teaspoons or sugar per serve, even health choice packaged meals had nearly six teaspoons of sugar.

Public Health Association chief Terry Slevin says clear labelling about sugar content of foods would help people make better choices.

"If you tried a simple depiction of a teaspoon with a number in it indicating how many were in each serve that would be a good thing," he said.

He says any new labelling regimen around sugar should be compulsory.

Public health lawyer Alexandra Jones, of The George Institute for Global Health, says there are 42 different names for added sugar ranging from honey, to agave nectar and even turbinado and manufacturers can choose to list these ingredients separately.

"We believe they need to placed together in the ingredients list. It will help people see at a glance just how much sugar is in a product," she said.

Food companies are moving to head off regulatory change and sugar taxes and recently pledged to voluntarily to reduce sugar in soft drinks by 20 per cent.