Should added sugar be labeled?

Health Ministers meet in Melbourne today to discuss current food regulatory issues with one of the hot topics on the agenda being a review of sugar labeling. 

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In the lead up to the meeting, Choice has launched a campaign to encourage consumers to contact their Health Minister to advocate for support of added sugar labeling.  But how effective is this as a strategy for creating behaviour change that will lead to a reduction in sugar intake?

Currently food labels contain a nutrition information panel that lists total sugars but doesn’t break this down into the amount that comes from added sugar and the amount that comes from sugar naturally found in the food or its ingredients.

This makes it difficult for people to work out how much added sugar they are eating.

To be compatible with a healthy diet the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends up to 10% of total kilojoules in a persons diet come from added sugar. This is a useful benchmark for governments to assess whether a population is consuming too much added sugar and whether this is an area that needs addressing. 

However, on an individual level, people don't spend time analyzing the percentage of their daily kilojoule intake that comes from added sugar.

Rather, when the clients I see decide to reduce their intake of added sugar, they cut down their intake of sugary drinks, cakes, biscuits and muffins, they stop adding sugar to their coffee and they start eating fewer desserts. 

The average Australian intake of added sugar is 15 teaspoons a day. To meet the WHO recommendation we need to reduce this to 13 teaspoons a day. That’s two less teaspoons of added sugar a day.

70% of our added sugar intake comes from drinks, cakes, muffins, biscuits, cakes and spreads. This means that encouraging the reduction of these foods is likely to get most people under the 10% benchmark.

While everyone agrees that eating less added sugar is a good thing, there can be a disconnect between the way that achieving a change in behaviour is addressed by public health authorities, and the way people think about changing their habits to achieve their personal health goals. 

It's useful to keep in mind that people eat foods – they don’t eat numbers. 

We have emerged from the low fat era with some hard lessons learnt. Focusing on one nutrient is not helpful when aiming to improve public health and dietary habits. Yet we continue to repeat this mistake. It’s hard to see how focusing on labeling added sugar is much different to focusing on labeling food as low in fat. 

It’s perhaps time to reassess our focus on nutrients and start focusing on whole foods to encourage a more effective and simpler approach to behaviour change. 

Is the significant investment that people working within the food industry would have to make in deciphering added vs natural sugars in product recipes and re-labeling really worthwhile as a strategy to reduce average population intake of added sugar by 2 teaspoons a day? 

Would it not be a better investment of time and money to focus on teaching kids to cook and grow food to avoid ‘hidden’ added sugars, to build on current momentum that is seeing a return to home cooking, and to advise people to simply eat less cakes, biscuits, pastries, confectionery and soft drinks?

To save confusion, added sugar labeling is perhaps best kept as a voluntary option for food providers and the regulations adjusted to enable this to appear within the nutrition information panel.