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Upping the ante on hidden sugar

Kiwis currently eat far too much sugar – about 29 teaspoons each and every day – which is why we’re stepping up our efforts to reduce sugar levels in their products.

Dave Monro, NZRD

Dave Monro, NZRD

Chief Advisor Food & Nutrition

I completed chef training while studying nutrition/ dietetics and enjoy combining both of these elements to develop practical solutions for families to eat healthier.

Whether it’s sugar-free diets, sugar tax or sugar in children’s foods, not a week seems to go by without a media story appearing about sugar. And, let’s make no mistake, sugar is a weighty issue. New Zealand adults consume about 29 teaspoons of sugar per day, while children consume about 25 teaspoons*. This is far in excess of the World Health Organization’s free sugars target of less than 10% of daily energy (about 12 teaspoons of sugar) or to 5 % of total energy (about 6 teaspoons of sugar) to gain health benefits. 

Consuming a heart-healthy diet, cutting back on sugary drinks and having an eating pattern largely built around minimally-processed foods is a great place to start. However, things are never that simple when it comes to healthy eating.

We live in a world of convenience, taste, and affordability, where food is heavily marketed. The reality is we have some level of processed foods in our diets. The problem is that some categories contain large amounts of hidden sugar. For example, a recent report by Consumer NZ found a large number of children’s cereals are still too high in sugar. Many popular varieties were identified as having around a third sugar, while one had a whopping 41g of sugar per 100g.

We, therefore, need major food companies to be embracing sugar reduction across the food supply, and reformulating leading products to much lower levels. This is particularly so for products that can be high-volume staples for families. We know some positive work has been done by food companies but a lot more is needed.

Health by stealth

Last month, we marked a key milestone in our food reformulation work, by setting sugar reduction targets for three food categories (baked beans, canned spaghetti and tomato sauce). These targets were set in consultation with leading food companies and aim to encourage them to gradually reduce sugar levels (along with sodium levels) in high-volume, low-cost foods. The benefit of this approach is that it operates in a ‘behind the scenes’, ‘health by stealth’ fashion, where shoppers automatically get the benefit of less sugar.

This has proven to be a successful formula, with the Heart Foundation having supported food companies to reduce salt (sodium) levels in processed foods over the past 10 years. Sodium levels in bread are now around 25% lower than they were 10 years ago. Children’s breakfast cereals are around 33% lower and some brands of processed meats, such as sausages, are around 20% lower. The cumulative effect of companies’ efforts in all the categories where sodium targets have been set equates to more than 250 tonnes of salt being removed from targeted products on a per annum basis.

The new sugar targets will be phased into other categories, on a case-by-case basis. For example, sugar reduction targets are expected to be set for breakfast cereals over the coming month.

It may be difficult to mimic the success of salt reduction work because the major sources of sugar in our diets come from treat foods, rather than staple foods. However, we believe reducing sugar through a food reformulation approach is necessary and can deliver some ‘sweet success’.

Other areas we're looking to support sugar reduction in food supply:

  • emphasising a healthy eating pattern that revolves around eating less processed foods, and which consists of plenty of vegetables and fruit. 
  • supporting the Healthy Food Guide’s petition for a tax on sugary drinks
  • backing the Government’s call for all schools to become water- and milk-only (reduced fat) schools
  • reintroducing a sugar criteria to our Tick programme last year
  • advocating for changes to the Code of Advertising to Children and the Children’s Code for Advertising Food.

* References
1. Ministry of Health, University of Otago (2011) A focus on nutrition:  Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand adult nutrition survey.  Accessed 11/11/2015.  Available: Wellington: Ministry of Health.
2. Ministry of Health (2003) NZ Food NZ Children:  Key results of the 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.