New research shows that two-thirds of all packaged foods on supermarket shelves contain added sugars—including some you might not expect—and they’re hard to pinpoint, thanks to confusing terminology used by food manufacturers.
FoodSwitch’s annual report: State of the food supply found more than 400 different names for added sugars on packaged food labels, making it impossible for consumers to identify and cut back on them, as prescribed by the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
This “surreptitiously added sugar” meant some Australians were consuming up to 22 teaspoons a day – nearly double the maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation, said George Institute dietician Dr Daisy Coyle.
“Too much sugar contributes to higher rates of obesity and associated chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes,” she said.
“But while most of us know it’s bad for us, cutting back is hard when you can’t know how much of a food you’re buying — right now, manufacturers are only required to list the total sugars on a product’s nutrition information panel.”
In the report, George Institute researchers used the criteria of the Government’s Health Star Rating (HSR) system to rate more than 25,000 packaged foods and drinks sold in supermarkets across Australia.
It found that of the big four supermarkets, Woolworths’ brands still have the highest overall health rating with Coles and IGA in joint second place and ALDI coming in as the least healthy.
But Dr Coyle said the fact that there has been little change in the overall health of the food supply in the past few years suggests a different approach is now needed.
“One of the biggest barriers to HSR’s success is that it remains voluntary—we found only 41 percent of products display HSR on the packaging—so there’s no level playing field,” she said.
“Although the top 20 manufacturers have higher absorption rates of about 70 percent, there is wide variation, with Peters Ice Cream products not displaying as high an HSR on the packaging as the 96 percent higher for The Smith’s Snackfood Company products.”
“In particular, IGA has chosen not to participate in the HSR scheme at all, even though it is one of the largest retailers in Australia,” added Dr Coyle.
Although a voluntary HSR has been in place since 2014, compliance remains low at around 40 per cent, and this has worsened since last year’s report. Although the government has set the industry standard for 70 per cent compliance by 2025, there is little evidence that this target will be met and there remains firm commitment to making the system mandatory if it is not.
However, food ministers will soon open a public consultation about proposed changes to food labels that would require foods to display added sugar content on a nutritional information panel. Dr Coyle said that while this was an important step towards helping Australians make informed choices, it was likely that it would take some time for any changes to be adopted.
“Currently, the only way for shoppers to know how much added sugar is in a product is to download the FoodSwitch app and scan a barcode – this will give an estimate of the added sugar content, as well as suggest healthy alternatives to switch to,” he added.
The report also revealed some of the more surprising clues that could lead to a significant drop in sugar consumption over the course of a year:
- Greek Yogurt – Switching from Galna’s bowl of original sweet and creamy Greek yogurt to plain Chobani Greek yogurt can save you 20.5 teaspoons per 2kg tub or about 4kg of added sugars per year, if you consume one tub of yogurt per week.
- Granola — Switching from cranberries, apples and roasted nuts from Carman’s Crunchy Oat Clusters to Jordan’s Low Sugar Granola Almond & Hazelnut can save you 28.5 teaspoons per 500g packet or about 3kg of added sugars per year, if you consume one packet every two weeks.
- BBQ Sauce – Switching from Master Foods BBQ Sauce to Fountain Barbecue Sauce can save 50.5 teaspoons of added sugar per 500ml bottle, or about 2.5kg of added sugar over the course of a year if you consume a bottle every month.
“Consumers deserve to know what is in the food they eat, and we are very much in favor of having the amount of added sugar in a clearly defined product. This could also prompt the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar they put into processed foods,” said Dr Coyle.
“We don’t want shoppers to have to wait years for this information, we want people to be able to make informed choices now — small changes can really add up.”
Provided by the George Institute for Global Health
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