Is sugar fuelling obesity in NZ?

WHITE POISON: Josh Bradley, 4, knows better than to finish up everything on his plate.
WHITE POISON: Josh Bradley, 4, knows better than to finish up everything on his plate.

Sugar's sweet seduction of consumers now extends far beyond well-known honeytraps such as fizzy drinks, biscuits, and yoghurt.

Look behind the healthy-sounding labels of food on supermarket shelves and consumers will find surprising amounts of sugar in unlikely seeming products.

Health experts gather in Auckland this month to discuss drastic measures to cut New Zealanders' sugar consumption.

Ahead of the Fizz conference - the first of its kind on sugar - the Sunday Star-Times found popular supermarket foods had surprisingly high levels of sugar.

Consuming a breakfast bar, baked beans, Thai stir fry and flavoured water each day could push your daily sugar consumption to about 17 teaspoons. All these items are branded healthy, such as "low-sugar", "all natural" and "superfood". This is despite the sugar adding up above the American Heart Association's daily recommendation limit of nine teaspoons of sugar for men or six teaspoons for women.

Excessive sugar consumption is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, and premature ageing.

The World Health Organisation last week warned of a "tidal wave" of cancer, with sugar-fuelled obesity part of the problem.

University of Auckland nutrition and global health professor Boyd Swinburn said a spoonful of sugar in coffee was not the problem. The enemy sits on the supermarket shelves. "A few decades ago the low-fat message came out and companies reformulated their products. They pulled the fat out and put the sugar in. And obesity continued to rise."

Sugar is most obviously added to processed foods for flavour, textures and as a preservative.

Swinburn is one of the key speakers at the Fizz symposium on February 19 and 20, which focuses on sugary drinks. He is calling for greater government regulation: a sugar tax on sweet drinks, improved food labelling and restricted junk food advertising.

"Even the US managed to flatten off their childhood rates of obesity, as well as a bunch of European countries and Australia. In New Zealand it's still going up. We're doing very poorly and this is one area the government can act."

New Zealand could be seen as a soft touch on sugar. WHO is looking at cutting its recommendations for sugar intake, currently at 10 per cent of daily calories. New Zealand's recommended limit is 15 per cent of calories.

Sweetened processed foods are also changing the way we cook, with people adding more sugar to home cooking than needed according to Fight the Obesity Epidemic spokeswoman Robyn Toomath. "If you cook something from an original Edmonds cook book you will be astonished how little sugar and fat there is."

Healthy Food Guide nutritionist Claire Turnbull said some extreme dieters are completely cutting sugar from their diet.

"There's a big difference between significantly reducing sugar and going on a sugar-free diet." Removing sugar could mean missing out on the essential goodness provided by foods containing natural sugars.

"Sugar is certainly worth paying attention to because there's no doubt it's part of the problems we face when it comes to our health and wellbeing, but it is not an issue in isolation.

"There's a lot of fear-mongering and misinformation about the whole thing. It's not helpful and can be confusing. The best thing people can do is avoid sugary drinks and go for water, eat less processed food and stop adding extra sugar to their own food and drinks."

Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich said more regulation was not the answer, and sugar just needed to be enjoyed in moderation. "More and more consumers are opting for the zero and low calorie option beverages, which I understand are now around 40 per cent of sales. Consumers have been making the decision to switch without any food tax or ban in sight."

Sunday Star Times