How much sugar is sneaking into your supermarket shop?

Australian food ministers are expected to consult publicly on proposed changes to food labels later this year to improve information on added sugar.

One way is by quantifying it on product nutrition panels. “Currently they only list total sugars. It’s confusing because you don’t know how much is coming from, for example, dry fruit versus pure sugar,” Coyle says.

Other options include showing the number of teaspoons of added sugar on the front of packaging with a pictorial warning, and a clearer ingredients list.

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“There are about 800 terms and variations for added sugar, so it makes it really hard for consumers to pick up a product and know if it has a lot,” Coyle says. “It would be great if all added sugar terms could be listed under one ingredient.”

Coyle says she would like to see the government’s voluntary sugar targets made mandatory to force companies to make healthier food. She also calls for the sizes of junk food products to be reduced.

“We need to limit the amount of sugar manufacturers are pouring into our packaged foods and let consumers make informed choices when they shop,” she says.

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Tips for reducing your intake of added sugars

  • To calculate how many grams are in a teaspoon, use this as a guide: one teaspoon = approximately four grams of sugar.
  • Look out for added sugars on the ingredients list. There are more than 800 terms, but common ones include fructose, rice syrup, dextrose, maple syrup, glucose, sucrose and all types of sugar (brown, white, raw).
  • If a product contains more than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams, it probably contains added sugar. Look for those that have under five grams per 100 grams instead.
  • Cut back on foods that are high in added sugar, such as confectionery, ice-cream, sugary drinks, flavoured milk, biscuits and cakes.
  • When choosing between products, opt for plain and unsweetened varieties e.g. natural yoghurt, plain milk and unflavoured meats.
  • Spend more around the perimeter of the supermarket where you’ll find healthy staples including fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, nuts, meat and bread. These foods should make up the majority of your diet.
  • Download the FoodSwitch app. It will tell you how much added sugar is in a product and recommend healthier alternatives to switch to.

Source: The George Institute for Global Health

Associate Professor Gary Sacks, of Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre, says the research results are “alarming” given most people buy their food from the supermarket and high-sugar diets are heavily linked to Australia’s obesity rates, and in turn, other chronic diseases. A quarter of children and two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and the Australian Dietary Guidelines urge people to limit their sugar intake.

Sacks, who was not involved in the George Institute research, supports clearer food labelling, and says he’d also like to see Australia follow the UK by introducing a sugar tax, plus measures to curb junk food’s advertising and heavy discounting.

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“There’s a responsibility on food companies to take more action,” Sacks says. “With confectionery, no one is pretending those are healthy products and consumers understand that, but when you look at other categories … there’s a lot of scope for sugar levels to come down.”

He adds it’s also important we don’t overly focus on one individual nutrient, and instead consider foods’ overall nutrition.

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“While sugar is a problem, one reason we got into this situation of high sugar in yoghurt is because decades ago there was fuss about fats, so food manufacturers started to make low-fat yoghurt, and increased sugar to compensate.”

Sacks wants the voluntary Health Star Rating system – which accounts for multiple nutrients – to become mandatory, which the George Institute also strongly backs.

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