Australians are consuming less added sugars and drinking less sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) than they were two decades ago, but this is not translating to smaller waistlines, a new study led by the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre suggests.
Published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the results show that while fewer sugary beverages like soft drinks and cordials were consumed, and the average daily energy intake from SSBs also declined, the prevalence of obesity has still risen 80 percent over the past 30 years.
Researchers analysed multiple independent data sets to paint a picture of the typical Australian’s dietary behaviours and how added sugar consumption has changed in recent decades.
These included the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 1995 and 2011-12 national dietary surveys, United Nations data into the availability of added and refined sugars in Australia, and national beverage industry and grocery sales figures.
It appears many Australians have been trying to do the right thing for some time now by reducing their daily intake of added sugars.
"The total mix of added sugars in Australian diets is also changing – from soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages towards other discretionary items like chocolate and confectionery,” said lead author Professor Jennie Brand-Miller from the Charles Perkins Centre.
“Yet even though we can detect a decline in both the apparent consumption and reported intake of sugars and sweeteners, this has been paralleled by a sustained rise in the prevalence of obesity and its associated health problems like type 2 diabetes.
“Our results suggest there may be unintended consequences in focusing on a singular dietary component such as added sugars only, and more should be done in public health campaigns to address other concentrated sources of energy such as alcohol, starchy takeaway and savoury snacks.”
The two most-recent ABS surveys tell a consistent story about added-sugar consumption in Australian diets. Between 1995 and 2011-12, added-sugar intake – which includes foods where sugar was added during food processing and preparation – fell 18 percent in adult men aged over 19 years, from 72 to 59 grams per day. A 4.5 percent decline was also reported in adult women, from 44 to 42 grams per day.
Declines in added sugar consumption were greatest in children and youth aged between 2 and 18 years, with a fall of 34 percent in boys (96 to 63 grams per day) and 26 percent in girls (from 72 to 53 grams per day).
Sugars that were contributed by soft drinks also declined 15 percent in adult men and 13 percent in adult women, with a bigger drop (16-27 percent) in children aged 2 to 18 years.
“This decline in reported SSB consumption is consistent with industry data showing fewer Australians are purchasing full-sugar SSB products,” said Professor Brand-Miller.
Last month confidential scan data from Australia’s major supermarkets revealed soft drink sales fell 2.9 percent in volume, according to Fairfax Media reports.
“In Australia, per capita availability of refined sugars fell 16 percent between 1980 and 2011. Similar trends have also emerged in the United Kingdom, which has also seen a reduction in the availability of added sugars in the diet,” Professor Brand-Miller said.
By contrast, during the same period reported intake of confectionery – including chocolate, licorice, sweets and health bars – rose 47 percent in men and 43 percent in women. Calories from alcoholic beverages also increased 9 percent in adult men and 77 percent in adult women.
“Added-sugar consumption is difficult to single-out as a specific dietary behaviour as it is very circumstantial in nature. When people eat high levels of added sugars, this isn’t likely to be the only thing they’re doing – these people are more likely to also consume high amounts of energy from other sources including alcohol, refined starches and saturated fat,” said co-author and Accredited Practicing Dietitian Dr Alan Barclay.
“Our study suggests that laying the blame for the obesity crisis on added sugars alone is not a rational solution to the problem. We need to see a more coordinated approach and more effective interventions to help lower intakes of all discretionary foods and beverages.”
“Across the board, nutrition studies face challenges in collecting and analysing data around specific dietary behaviours due to the subjective nature of self-reporting, where people may downplay their true eating activities when surveyed,” added Professor Brand-Miller.
“This study not only analysed multiple concurrent data sets but also made adjustments to allow for the possibility of underreporting, presenting a compelling snapshot of how Australian’s diets have changed in recent years and the areas we should prioritise in our public health messaging.”