Last night’s Sunday programme on sugary soft drinks (TVNZ 10 June, 7pm) promised yet another “expose” of the type our current affairs love to hype up to get our eyeballs and ears on their screens at the right time. Previous shows from the US and Australia clearly paved the way for our own home-grown version of another chapter in the great obesity debate.
It was a great opportunity to show what is happening in NZ and how we as a nation are faring in these tricky times and what the food industry and health sector are doing to address a global issue.
Not surprisingly, but no less disappointingly the piece was fairly one dimensional and single-mindedly focused on sugar and soft drinks. What it did highlight, once again, was the limited lens through which so many people choose to examine the link between food and health, or rather food and disease as appears to be the main focus.
While I commend Sunday for attempting to help New Zealanders think about what they choose to eat (or in this case drink), the facts do not warrant the dramatic way in which this, and many other stories are presented.
It certainly makes for good TV to show a wheelbarrow full of sugar to represent how much we each consume annually, but this is somewhat misleading. Likewise we each consume several Olympic-sized swimming pools of water annually, which also looks frightening. In fact on a daily basis our median intake of sucrose when last measured in 2008/09 was just 48g. And it’s on the decline (it was 53g in 1997).
Also, only 5% of our energy (as measured in 2008/09) came from non-alcoholic beverages. And just 1.4% of energy was contributed by the sucrose in all non-alcoholic beverages (only part of which is sugary soft drink). The rest, presumably, is contributed by fat, lactose, fructose, glucose and protein (remembering this group includes all non-alcoholic beverages other than plain milk). So are the other foods and drinks which contribute 98-99% of our energy intake unimportant? I think not.
In New Zealand, our intake of sugar (and particularly sugary soft drinks) differs significantly from countries like the United States, where much of the concern about sugar intakes stems from.
I don’t wish to trivialise the issue, as clearly the above figures are population medians, and some New Zealanders do over-consume. I would like to propose however, that these individuals are unlikely to be over-consuming on sugary soft drinks alone, and are more likely to be part of the growing number of food-illiterate people who don’t understand what over-consumption is.
To Professor Rush’s point, there is some evidence that we feel less satiated when we drink kilojoules, compared with when we eat them (because our stomachs empty more quickly), but I think the issue of satiation is far broader than just blaming drinks for our obesity problem. More and more New Zealanders seem to have become so accustomed to constant grazing on food and drink, to the point that many do not recognise the feeling of satiation, let alone the feeling of hunger.
What drives us to this? Economic, cultural and social issues that shape the environment we live in and the choices we make. Recently I read some research which found that most people no longer know what a calorie/kilojoule is. Yes, sugar and sugary drinks provide kilojoules, but so does everything we eat. In order to improve our health as a nation, individuals need a basic understanding of their own diet and how it relates to their own health; they need tools to help them make the best choices for them individually and they need to accept some individual responsibility for what they feed themselves and their families on a daily basis.
Yes, I do provide independent nutrition advice to a range of food companies, including NZ Sugar and Coca-Cola Oceania, so you may think my opinion is biased. As a result though, I’ve been following this issue closely and am aware of the evidence, plus lack of evidence, surrounding it. In my experience, it’s hard to get those without a vested interest in this issue to speak up – at least in New Zealand. My personal view is to stick to the facts, and to address all of the issues with practical solutions, rather than pinpoint one possible contributor alone. If there was a single silver bullet to address obesity, we would have found it my now, and we’d all be an ideal BMI.