Sugar is the trendy dietary demon of the 21st Century.
It’s blamed for everything from fatigue and hyperactivity to diabetes and cancer. This “sweet poison”, we’re told, is also the reason more Australians are overweight and obese than ever before.
However, the awkward truth is, statistics show we’re actually eating less refined sugar today than we did in previous generations (much less than in 1951, for example, when our parents were busily guzzling down cake and pudding).
The issue of diet and health, it seems, is more complicated that simply ditching the sweet stuff - and while there’s no doubt too much sugar is not good, nor does it appear to be the sole evil culprit we’re sometimes led to believe it is.
New research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found Australia’s sugar consumption has fallen from 57kg per person per annum in 1951, to around 50kg in the 1970s, to 42kg in 2011.
So that’s a 26 per cent drop since 1951 – and a 16 per cent fall since 1970.
It’s wise to be sceptical here because the study was commissioned and funded by three major sugar refining companies, which obviously have a vested interest in getting us to eat more sugar.
Also, 42kg per person per year is still too much (and because of the way statistics were collected, that doesn’t include alternative sweeteners like honey, golden syrup, glucose and fructose).
Nevertheless, the study relied on 61 years of data from the well-respected Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which noted an overall downturn in sugar consumption from 1938 up until 1999 when it discontinued its Apparent Consumption of Foodstuffs reports.
The more recent data, from 1999 to 2011, is based on industry figures compiled by a commodity company.
Bill Shrapnel, the nutritionist and dietitian who co-authored the new study, says he “wasn’t surprised at all” to see the overall downturn in sugar consumption in Australia.
“It’s wrong to attribute [rising rates of overweight and obesity] to any particular nutrient,” he says. “We made that mistake with the low-fat movement, when people ate more carbohydrates instead. To think the added sugar content of our foods is driving obesity is just plain wrong. We are just repeating the mistake.”
Nevertheless, a strong anti-sugar movement is sweeping the world, supported by some outspoken doctors and scientists, wellness advocates, cookbook authors and celebrities.
They argue hidden sugars in food are making us overeat, messing with our hormones and making us sick. Fructose has been singled out for particular criticism (but while high-fructose corn syrup is used a lot in processed foods in the US, sucrose, which is a combination of glucose and fructose, is the primary sweetener used here in Australia).
Yesterday, a new app that spawned from the documentary That Sugar Film - based on a filmmaker Damon Gameau’s experiment of eating a high-sugar diet for a month and suffering the consequences – was launched.
That Sugar App shows shoppers how many teaspoons are in packaged foods so they can track how much they are eating. It was developed in partnership with The George Institute of Global Health.
Michelle Crino, FoodSwitch database manager at the Institute, hopes the app will be used to help shoppers make better choices – but acknowledged sugar is only part of the picture.
“What’s really good about That Sugar App is that it’s detecting sugar in foods that we think are quite healthy like yoghurt and breakfast drinks,” she says. “But you can’t just judge a food based on a single nutrient. I don’t rank sugar as any worse than salt or fat – but it’s about increasing awareness of
“Sugar seems to be having its moment – we had fat phobia, now it seems to be sugar phobia.”
So if sugar isn’t the nutritional bogeyman we think it is, what is the real problem here? “It’s over-consumption [of food],” says Bill. “In the past 100 years, we’ve seen physical activity decline combined with a food supply that is abundant, tasty and cheap. You don’t have to over-consume much to become overweight – a few kilos per year.”
One of the big reasons for the drop in refined sugar consumption, he says, is the trend for Australians to replace sugary soft drinks with artificially-sweetened diet alternatives over the past 15 years.
While this may cut down on sugar, however, it still doesn’t make soft drinks a healthy choice.
“We think we are having healthier alternatives because we are having low sugar soft drinks,” says Michelle, “when really we should be replacing them with water.”
Interestingly, some research suggests consuming artificially-sweetened drinks may result in us eating more and experiencing disruptions to our gut bacteria, which play an important role in maintaining health.
Similarly, says Michelle, it would be better to eat unprocessed wholefoods than processed modern foods sweetened with sugar alcohols like Xylitol and sorbitol.
Fifty years ago, she points out, people were more likely to be cooking from scratch than relying on convenience foods.
“Everything has to be consumed in moderation,” says Michelle.
Guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) this year recommended we should keep sugar to 10 per cent or less of our daily energy intake – and furthermore, keeping it to five per cent could bring extra benefits.
According to the ABS’s Australian Health Survey, Australians get about 15 per cent of our energy from sugar (not including naturally-occurring sugar from fruit and dairy, as per WHO guidelines).
Bill Shrapnel – who, it should be noted, has counted organisations like Kellogg Australia, National Heart Foundation, Australian Beverages Council and Sugar Australia among his clients - says it’s “frustrating” to see health claims made about sugar by wellness advocates that aren’t backed by scientific evidence.
A concurrent trend to embrace saturated fat from coconut oil, meat and dairy is also concerning, he claims.
“Two years ago there wasn’t any consumer market for coconut oil,” he says. “It’s gone crazy now.”
He recognises his message of moderation – promoting a diet including sensible amounts of all nutrients (including, he reckons, slightly less carbohydrates than recommended in official dietary guidelines) – is “not sexy” and won’t sell books.
“Social media is a new innovation,” he says, “and people are interested in what celebrities eat.”
But back to the statistics: why did we eat so much sugar in 1951?
“During World War Two, there was rationing of sugar,” explains Bill. “After that was lifted in 1947, I think Australians had a bit of a party.”
HOW MUCH SUGAR ARE WE EATING IN AUSTRALIA?
(per person, per year)
1938 – 51kg
1951 – 57kg
1970 – 50.3kg
1998/99 – 43.4kg
2011 – 42kg
Source: ABS Apparent Consumption of Foodstuffs, Australia, and GreenPool’s Sugar Consumption in Australia.