Levels of obesity have risen steeply in Australia despite some evidence that sugar intakes have declined.
A study published by the American Society for Nutrition investigated recent trends in the availability of sugars and sweeteners across multiple independent data sources.
The study titled ‘Declining consumption of added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages in Australia: a challenge for obesity prevention’ said the objective of the study was to investigate recent trends in the availability of sugars and sweeteners in Australia.
“As shown by global analysis, Australia and New Zealand experienced the single-largest absolute increase in adult obesity since 1980 (from 16% to 29%) and the single largest increase in adult female obesity,” it said.
“However, a previous analysis of food balance sheets of the FAO Statistics Division Database (FAOSTAT) indicated that, within the same time frame, Australia experienced a decline in the availability of refined sugars and sweeteners.”
The study found that in Australia, per capita the availability of added or refined sugars and sweeteners fell 16% between 1980 and 2011.
The findings challenge the widespread belief that energy produced from sugars is linked to obesity.
Several authoritative organisations have issued public health guidelines in the last few years addressing dietary sugars and their link to obesity.
A similarly focused report titled ‘The Australian Paradox’ that was published in 2011 saw similar findings.
Written by academics Alan W. Barclay and Jennie Brand-Miller, the report claimed that sugar intake had been declining for 30 years to 2010, while obesity and diabetes had tripled.
“Over the same timeframe, like other developed nations, Australia has experienced a three-fold increase in the prevalence of obesity among adults and children. Hence in this ecological analysis, trends in refined sugar consumption are inversely related to incremental weight gain in the population as a whole,” it said.
“These findings support the supposition that once total energy intake has been accounted for, per capita changes in energy from sweeteners do not explain changes in the incidence of obesity.”
What then does this mean for the proposed sugar tax?
The Greens Party last year called for a blanket 20% ‘sugar tax’ to be implemented on soft drinks to tackle obesity.
The tax would see around 20 cents added to the supermarket cost of soft drinks and Greens research states a tax would lead to a fall in consumption of 12%.
Greens senator Richard Di Natale, who made a case for the tax, said the policy would hold long-term benefits.
“The sweetest part of this policy will be the longer-term benefits to Australians by reducing chronic disease and achieving better health outcomes,” he said.
In a media release published on The Greens website, he also said Australia has a major health crisis on its hands.
“Over a quarter of Australian adults and children overweight or obese,” he said.
“Sugary sweetened beverages are a major contributor to increasing rates of childhood obesity and if this trend continues our children may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
The release also said the tax is only one part of the proposed policy and prevention strategy which included clear food labeling, a restriction of junk food advertising to children and encouraging physical activity.
Sydney University Associate Professor of Marketing Teresa Davis conducted a study across six food brands and found that there were a number of ways digital marketers built their brand relationships with young consumers in ways not seen by traditional media.
Dr Davis said that working on her Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) had made it clear that young children do not understand advertising in the same way adults do.
“Cognitively, there are developmental differences. This simply means their minds are more vulnerable to persuasion,” she said.
“Regulations governing traditional advertising does more to help protect the vulnerable.
“Hidden advertising in newer forms of digital media makes it harder than ever for children, and their parents, to understand how much of it they are exposed to.
Dr Davis concluded, “The long-term effects of obesity in childhood leads to adult disease and adult obesity”.
According to the Australian Diabetes Council, Australians are “well aware of the health issues of sugar”, and on average consume more than 20 teaspoons of sugar every day.
The Australian Heart Foundation recommends no more than nine teaspoons of sugar per day.
The Food CHATs annual report 2015-16 stated that cutting back on sugar was a priority for Australians.
“We want to do it, we think about it doing it, and we know we should be doing it. But actually changing consumption is more difficult,” it said.
“Very few Australians will actually prioritise reducing sugar in the next 12 months, they certainly don’t want to do so by replacing sugar with natural alternatives such as Stevia, nor do they want to use artificial sweeteners.
“Finding the sweet spot between our intentions and our consumption is still a challenge.”
Food CHATs also reported that the number one health concern for Australians was that there was too much sugar in packaged foods.
The low-calorie sweetener alternative
New research has been released that suggests the sugar alternative- the low-calorie sweetener might be doing more harm than good.
George Washington University Associate Professor of Medicine Sabyasachi Sen, Doctor of Medicine (M.D) said that many health-conscious people consume low-calories sweeteners as an alternative to sugar.
“We believe that low-calorie sweeteners promote additional fat formation by allowing more glucose to enter the cells, and promotes inflammation, which may be more detrimental in obese individuals,” he said.
Mr Sen and his colleagues tested sucralose, a low-calorie sweetener, on stem cells to observe their reaction.
A 0.2 millimolar dose was added to the human fat tissue stem cells, revealing an increased expression of genes that were the markers for fat production and inflammation.
The University of Sydney’s Professor Colagiuri strongly supports a sugar tax.
“A sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) tax will encourage people to shift to a healthier diet by reducing their consumption of sugary beverages, and shifting to untaxed healthier substitutes. It might also incentivise industry to reformulate to reduce the sugar content of SSB products,” he said.
With much-cited reports and studies questioning the link between sugar and obesity in Australia, it’s difficult to know which research to trust.
Various politicians and academics still feel that implementing a sugar tax would of benefit to the Australian people, even if the research no longer adds to equal that fact.
It seems to be that like a donut, the research keeps going around and coming back to where it started. How much of this research is straight fact, and how much is sugar-coated?