Sugar – since when did the facts get in the way of a good story?

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.


Categories: Food Industry, Food Trends, Health Promotion, Nutrition and Health, Scientific Research

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4 replies »

  1. I found the programme quite difficult to swallow – as, interestingly, did my teenage sons, who were aghast that the proposed ‘solution’ to the consumption of soft drinks came from someone selling big bottles of filtered tap water to low income families. Their teen-take on it was that the report was a big advert for a watercooler business and, judging by social media commentary, they weren’t alone in that view.

    From a communications perspective, I think your point concerning food illiteracy is extremely valid, but equally, mainstream media increasingly looks for someone to ‘blame’ for all our societal ills. As individuals and families we make choices and have responsibility for all we do but far too frequently, when extreme choices prove to have unfortunate consequences, rather than personal responsibility being taken, it becomes the fault of the ‘things’ we did – food, drink, alcohol, speeding, etc.. – rather than our own culpability.

    The way we eat has changed – at my house we are now the exception rather than the rule among many of my sons’ peers simply because we still sit together every evening for a meal at the table. Some of them think we’re quite odd, while others enjoy coming along for some food, conversation and lots of laughs – none of which tend to be available via the ‘grazing’ method.

    I would agree that the starting point has to be around societal values and practices, whether that is around the food we eat, the way we drive or problems relating to alcohol – for example, the recent media stories surrounding Queen Street’s binge drinkers blamed everyone except the people choosing to preload themselves into such a ghastly state but failed to look at the underlying reasons why the bingers felt this was an acceptable way to behave – and why the rest of society tolerates such behaviour.

    Maybe the answer is for the nutritionists, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists to get together and first identify social cause and influence – sort out the ‘why’ so we can make headway on the ‘what’.

    And disclosure .. I have had a passing involvement with food and beverage companies in my professional capacity, but my main engagement with food and drink over the decades has been as a consumer!

  2. Thanks Catherine – you make some very valid points. I am particularly keen on looking at health/food/nutrition issues through a sociological lens, to understand better why people cannot/will not prioritise health overa ll of life’s other pressures.

  3. Thanks for your input. Can the food industry really condone the increased consumption of refined sugar? Are they really saying that until we get every other contributor to obesity under control, they are not interested in being part of the solution. At least Just Water can have a vision of “enhancing lives”; Coke and KFC’s vision can only be “shortening lives”! In terms of Coke, they not only cause premature death of their consumers, but rot their consumers’ teeth on the way and pollute the environment with their plastic bottles. Yuk!!!!

  4. Apologies for the delay in posting this – it was not intentional.
    Tony naturally the points you make, coming from you are no surprise. They repeat the unsubstantiated points you consistently make in other forums. Given they are well aired but also grossly incorrect your posting warrants correction of those inaccuracies.
    Firstly consumption of refined sugar is not increasing. Our consumption of sucrose (a measure of added sugar) is actually decreasing according to the Ministry of Health’s most recent National Nutrition Survey.
    The single minded idea that sugar and soft drinks are the major cause of obesity has certainly captured people’s attention. These products do contribute energy and intake of sugar does need to be moderated by individuals who over-consume it (not the majority of New Zealanders). Those same people are likely to over consume most other foods and beverages. That is what leads to obesity. I find this constant barking up one tree irresponsible when there is a whole forest that needs tending to.
    Secondly many of the key food and beverage manufacturers in New Zealand are participating very actively in being part of the solution to obesity. Some examples include: reformulating products, developing new products under strict nutrition guidelines, broadening overall portfolios to offer more low energy choices, adopting marketing and promotion policies to favour low energy choices, facilitating professional development sessions for health professionals and supporting community health and activity programmes.
    Thirdly, no food/beverage manufacturer has a vision to “shorten lives”. Happy, healthy customers who live long lives are what any business wants to ensure continued custom.
    It is not surprising to me that you have strong feelings against your key competitor. That’s quite normal in business. Though few go to the lengths you have to promote unsubstantiated myths about their competitors from a self-appointed ‘moral high ground’ position. I just hope that others see this for what it is – a marketing exercise for Just Water.
    While it is good to discuss the key facts, I’d prefer to focus on helping people eat healthier diets and live healthier lives. Your water programme is to be commended for that but your determination to blame your competitors undermines the benefits of this.