Health Ministers Ignore Consumer Demands for Better Food Labeling

In late November at the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, the Health Ministers delayed deciding about labeling added sugar. This is an unfortunate outcome, as the current levels of sugar that Australians (especially teenagers) are consuming are far above the recommended levels, which can lead to negative outcomes like tooth decay and diabetes.

On average, Australians consume 14 teaspoons of added sugar per day, while teenagers consume 22 teaspoons. Upon reviewing the evidence that correlates sugar consumptions with health problems like tooth decay and diabetes, the World Health Organization made recommendations to limit added sugar consumption to 12 teaspoons or less per day, and ideally less than 6 teaspoons.

Tooth decay is caused by bacteria in the mouth using sugar from foods and drinks to produce acids that dissolve and damage teeth over time. When these acids eat through the enamel layer of the teeth, cavities can form, and the inner layers of the tooth may become exposed which can lead to painful or sensitive teeth. Sugar-sweetened beverages contain lots of sugar and contribute significantly to tooth decay.

Limiting your intake of added sugar is a difficult task when you can’t clearly see on the label how much added sugar a product contains, and the delay of this decision is only exacerbating the issue. Health advocates and consumer groups alike have been calling for sugar labelling legislation, with a campaign from Choice Australia even prompting more than 20,000 consumers to contact their Health Minister on the issue.

Back in 2016, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration announced that nutrition labeling would undergo changes requiring that added sugars be labeled and serving sizes reflect the amount of a product that Americans were actually consuming (for example, changing a soft drink bottle to reflect one serving instead of 2.5, as most people would drink the bottle solo). This decision was made in part as an increasing number of Americans battle obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Companies have until July of 2018 to comply, and approximately 800,000 products’ nutrition labelling will need to be updated under the new legislature. Everything from soft drinks to candy to canned soups, to pasta sauce, will need to undergo labelling changes.

The UK is also changing when it comes to sugary drinks. Back in 2016 then Chancellor George Osborne announced that in two years’ time the UK would begin taxing sugary drink companies based on the amount of the sweet stuff in their product. The UK also began discussions on this topic in response to soaring rates of childhood obesity, as they predict that up to 50% of male and 70% of female adolescents could be obese within a generation. The World Health Organization also recommends for any country to begin a sugary drink tax as a way of deterring would-be sugar addicts.

Although many unprocessed foods contain sugar, such as fruit or milk, the big difference lies in the nutritional density. Foods with low nutritional value like cakes, ice cream, potato chips, or soft drinks, contain on average close to four times more sugar than foods like yoghurt, bread, milk, and oats. On the other hand, while a banana might contain a fair amount of sugar, when you eat a banana you are also ingesting potassium, vitamin C and dietary fibre. In other words, even though you are eating about 14 grams of sugar when you eat a banana, you are getting much more nutrition out a banana than if you had consumed 14 grams of sugar in a soft drink or cake. Making this differentiation on food labels would help consumers to learn what contains sugar but contributes to your health versus what has sugar and not much else to offer you.

Labeling added sugar would help consumers make informed decisions about how much sugar is added to their food and beverages. The hope is that such legislation will help to reduce Australian’s sugar consumption, thereby reducing the incidence of tooth decay, diabetes, and other health problems that have been linked to sugar consumption.