Just published research on how much added sugar Kiwis’ consume has surprised researchers as being not as bad as feared – though having a sweet tooth is still an issue, particularly for younger people.

The fresh analysis of a major New Zealand nutrition survey found that nearly half of adult Kiwis are meeting the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation by getting less than 10 per cent of their total daily energy intake from ‘free sugars’. The research, by University of Otago’s nutrition scientists, also found that on average New Zealand adults are consuming around 57g a day (the equivalent of about 14 teaspoons) of free sugar a day but teenage boys aged 15-18 consumed 85.6g (21 teaspoons) – mostly from sugary drinks.

Dr Lisa Te Morenga, one of the researchers involved, told Health Central that she had been surprised by the results as “given all the media hype around sugar” she thought Kiwi’s free or added sugar consumption might be higher. She said the average New Zealand adult’s free or added sugar intake was about 10-11 per cent of their daily calories compared to United States research indicating that 13-15 per cent of the average American’s calorie intake was through added sugar. But New Zealand’s obesity levels remain high with the latest Ministry of Health data indicating obesity levels are still growing with 32.2 per cent of New Zealand adults obese (i.e. have a body mass index of over 30).

“I think that’s an important reminder that sugar is not the only problem in our diet,” said Te Morenga.  “Some people may have very low-sugar diets but they have a lot of fried food – and that can be quite low in sugar but still not healthy.”

“Also in the last couple of years there has been so much focus on sugar – and often by the same people who want to promote high fat diets,” said Te Morenga.  “So the message has been ‘you don’t need to worry about fat any more, as all our health problems that we are seeing are to do with us eating too much sugar’.  But I think that is far too simplistic and our sugar intakes are not as high as you might think – certainly (compared to) a lot of other populations.”

She stressed New Zealanders should be looking at the quality of their overall diet – not just focusing on a single component like sugar.

Research focuses on calculating ‘free sugar’ intake

The Otago research, published this week in online nutrition journal Nutrients, re-analysed the findings of the Ministry of Health’s 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey to see how New Zealanders were doing in meeting the WHO recommendation of keeping free sugar intakes below 10 per cent.  Reducing the level of added sugar in people’s diet is almost universally recommended to reduce the risk of obesity-related diseases and dental caries but how much ‘free’ or ‘added sugar’ New Zealanders were actually consuming was unclear.

The World Health Organisation definition of ‘free sugar’ includes all sugars added to food and drinks by manufacturers or consumers but also includes all ‘natural’ sugar present in fruit juices, fruit juice concentrate, fruit puree, honey and syrup. This is broader than the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition of ‘added sugar’ which allows food manufacturers to sweeten food and drinks by adding ‘natural sugar’ – like fruit puree or juice – and still label food as having ‘no added sugar’.  The ‘total sugar’ figure is made up of ‘free sugar’ plus the natural sucrose and lactose found in whole fruit, vegetables and milk products.

Te Morenga said the most recent database of more than 2700 New Zealand food items only had information on ‘total sugar’ not ‘free sugar’ or ‘added sugar’ so first the researchers had to use an Australian analysis method to calculate the amount of ‘free sugar’ and ‘added sugar’ in each of the New Zealand food stuffs.

Once the researchers had the ‘free sugar’ and ‘added sugar’ data they re-examined the food and drink that the more than 4700 people taking part in the 2008/09 nutrition survey reported eating and drinking in the previous 24 hours –so the researchers could then calculate how much free sugar the survey participants had consumed and what proportion it was of their diet.

The study found that the free sugar intake of women on average was 10 per cent and for men 11 per cent of their daily calorie intake. They also found that overall 42 per cent of Kiwi adults were meeting the WHO recommendation (for less than 10 per cent of their daily calorie intake being from free sugar) and 51% of people older than 71.  Young people aged 15-30 were the least likely to meet the WHO guideline with only 27 per cent having sugar intakes at the recommended level.

The research team says this finding indicates that sugar reduction policies targeted at this group were likely to be the most effective.  Non-alcoholic sweetened beverages were a major part of the young people’s sugar intake so researchers believed a tax on sugary drinks could be one approach and another could be including information on ‘free sugar’ content on food and drink labels.

“Research on food labelling conducted in Australia and New Zealand has shown that many consumers interpret ‘no added sugars’ food claims to mean a product contains no sugar,” said the researchers in their article. “Our method for estimating free sugars in New Zealand makes it possible to provide consumers with better, less ambiguous information.”

Te Morenga said that re-analysing the 2008/09 Adult Nutrition Survey to find the free sugar consumption also meant that researchers could monitor the impacts of any new government policies that might be introduced to reduce sugar intakes, like a tax on sugary drinks. “We’ll have a tool now to monitor how effective that policy is.”

She added that international research also indicated that people they tend to under-report their intakes of sugary food and drinks – particularly women so Te Morenga said you could assume that the 2008-09 survey probably underestimated the sugar intake on a national level.  Also that there were some people who consumed a lot more than the 11 per cent mean.

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