6 things you didn’t know about sugar

7 April 2017

Using tactics similar to the tobacco industry, the sugar industry has influenced the research agenda on sugar in order to distract from the harms of its products says Professor Lisa Bero.

Is sugar the new health threat?

Dr Kieron Rooney discusses the impact of excess sugar in our diets.

The University of Sydney recently hosted a Health Forum on ‘Big sugar’ where a panel of our experts discussed the issues surrounding sugar. With more than 600 registrants to the event, the conversation on the night moved from the impact of sugar on the body to marketing and advertising to school canteens to bias in research to ‘I quit sugar diets’.

We asked our panelists to give us their top insights into things we might not know about sugar.

1. One can of a sweetened drink equates to your maximum daily intake of sugar

According to a University of Sydney study, the national average shows Australians are eating on average 22kg of added sugar per person every year or 60 grams of sugar per person per day. This jumps to a staggering 30kg per person per year or 82 grams per day for teenagers aged 14-18 years old, while 19-30 year olds are consuming about 27kg per year or 73 grams per day.

“The majority of Australians are consuming above the World Health Organization’s recommended 10kg of added sugar per person every year,” says Dr Kieron Rooney from the Faculty of Health Sciences and Charles Perkins Centre.

“Take, for example, a sugar sweetened drink. If you consume just one can, you’re consuming your maximum recommended limit of added sugar for the day.”

2. The sugar you drink as a child can impact you later in life

Dr Carrie Tsai from the Faculty of Dentistry says the negative health effects of dental caries (tooth decay) are cumulative - tracking from childhood to adulthood.

“Because dental caries is the result of a lifelong exposure to dietary risk factors such as added sugars, even a small reduction in the risk of dental caries in childhood is of great significance in later life.”

3. Don’t believe everything you read about sugar

Professor Lisa Bero from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Charles Perkins Centre says that “research studies funded by sugar-sweetened beverage companies are more likely to conclude that sugar is not harmful than studies with other sponsors, and research studies funded by artificial sweetener companies are less likely to find that consumption of artificial sweeteners is associated with weight gain than studies with other sponsors.” 

“Using tactics similar to the tobacco industry, the sugar industry has influenced the research agenda on sugar in order to distract from the harms of its products,” says Professor Bero.

4. Ads are making us fat

“A major contributing factor to childhood obesity is corporate advertising and marketing of junk food and sugary drinks,” says Dr Becky Freeman from the University’s School of Public Health and Charles Perkins Centre.

“Media, especially media aimed at children and young people, is saturated with sugar. Our research on junk food promotions shows that sugary drinks are highly active on social media sites that appeal to young people.

“People are engaging with these brands as part of their online social circle. Sugary drink companies are positioning themselves as “friends” when in truth they are making us overweight, unhealthy, and rotting our teeth. It is time to unfriend these pushers of sweet nothings.”

Dr Freeman adds that pester power is also a key strategy of junk food marketers who rely on the tendency of children to influence parental buying decisions. “Children who are bombarded with marketers' messages, unrelentingly request that their parents buy these same advertised items.”

5. Our dental bills from sugar are costing us

“The most recent data from 2010-11 shows that there were 60,590 potentially preventable hospital admissions for dental conditions and 129,084 cases of general anaesthesia for dental procedures, mostly for children having teeth pulled due to teeth decay,” says Dr Carrie Tsai.

6. We have no dietary need for sugar

Kieron Rooney says we can meet all of our energetic needs to not only sustain life but thrive without foods and drinks containing added sugars.

“Cutting the foods that contain added sugars out of our diet will not deprive you of any essential nutrients you can’t get anywhere else in the diet,” said Dr Rooney.

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