Consumers may be unknowingly consuming more sugar than intended, and more than 400 different names for added sugars are found on the labels of packaged foods.
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the average adult’s daily intake of sugar should be around 50g, or 12 teaspoons, per day.
However, the annual FoodSwitch Report: State of the Food Supply found that little-known added sugar in some common foodstuffs causes Australians to consume almost double the recommended limit.
This “stealthy added sugar” — as much as 22 teaspoons a day — can be added to many people’s meals without realizing it, said Dr. Daisy Coyle, a registered dietitian at the George Institute.
“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.”
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 Woolworths’ brands still had the highest overall health rating, with Coles and IGA taking second place together and ALDI coming in as the least healthy.
Dr. Coyle is calling for a new approach to food supply labeling in an effort to better inform consumers.
“One of the biggest barriers to the success of HSR 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, at around 70 percent, there is significant variance, with (for example) no products displaying an HSR on the packaging of more than 96 percent for The Smith’s Snackfood Company products.”
A voluntary HSR has been in place since 2014, said Dr Coyle, but compliance remains low at around 40 per cent, and this has worsened since last year’s report.
“Importantly, IGA has chosen not to participate in the HSR scheme at all, even though it is one of the largest retailers in Australia,” she said.
The Australian government has set an industry standard of 70 per cent compliance by 2025, but this target remains voluntary for food manufacturers to comply with.
However, public consultations are expected to begin on proposed changes to food labels, which would require companies to display the added sugar content on the nutritional information panel of their food products.
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 said.
Dr Coyle said shoppers are encouraged to check the nutritional labels of the products they buy to see what they are putting in their mouths.
“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 may also prompt the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar they pour into processed foods.”
“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.”