Just Like Cigarettes, Sugary Products Need Warning Labels
An image showing the number of teaspoons of sugar in food and drink products might soon be on all the packaging labels you see at your grocer.
A review has been ordered by the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation for food standard authorities to consider this type of labelling compulsory.
The health ministers believe food labels should provide “adequate contextual information about sugars” to assist consumers with making better choices in regard to their health. Given Australia ranks as the fifth most overweight nation in the world, with the rate of obesity almost doubling in the last decade and two in three Australians now classed as overweight or obese, the only question is, why hasn’t this been implemented sooner?
Currently, Australia has in place a Health Star Rating -- a front-of-pack labelling system that rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and rates it from half a star to five stars, depending on its health value -- as well as a Healthy Food Partnership program where the government, public and food industry can work together to encourage healthier eating and making positive changes.
Yet the statistics of sugar consumption in Australia are alarming. A health survey conducted in 2011-2012 showed Australians consume an average of 60 grams of free sugars per day (added sugars from food and beverage processing and preparation) -- the equivalent of eating 14 teaspoons of white sugar.
The largest consumers of sugar were boys aged 14-18, with 10 percent consuming 38 teaspoons each day. Children and teenagers are most likely to exceed the recommendation, with almost three-quarters of children aged nine to 18 consuming 10 percent or more of their dietary energy from free sugars.
It isn’t enough to cite the detrimental effects an overconsumption of sugar has on the human body. We already know the facts. We know it causes weight gain, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic (fatty) liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, inflammation, compromised immune function, and has also been linked to autoimmune diseases, metabolic disease and thyroid disorder.
More needs to be done.
Some years ago a poster first circulated the internet; a visual display of teaspoons of sugar lined up against the average drink consumed by Australians. I still recall its impact the first time I saw the content of sugar displayed so viscerally. Though I have always been mindful of health and keeping sugar consumption low, this poster was a game-changer for my family; that my (so-called-deprived-all-our-friends-are-allowed-to) kids could see why we had never allowed them to drink Coke, for instance -- would we allow you to sit here and eat nine teaspoons of sugar? No? Case in point. They understood. And never argued that one again.
In this way, compulsory labelling of food and drink using a pictorial approach would be of vital worth when it comes to tackling the obesity crisis in Australia. To have labelled an exact visual representation of sugar content, as opposed to having to read and decipher a label stating how many grams per 100g or serving or whatever -- both confusing and time-consuming -- would bring awareness and mindfulness of the foods we choose to, or choose not to, consume.
As well as labelling, the call to implement a tax on foods containing sugar still continues to be raised, and ignored, despite obesity costing Australian taxpayers more than five billion dollars a year, and despite clear evidence from 20 other countries that have introduced a sugar tax, which shows the sale of sugary drinks has declined. Sales in Mexico -- one of the highest ranked countries for obesity -- dropped an average of 7.6 percent since the tax was introduced.
However, with big sugar companies spending millions on political donations, as well as having first-hand input into the policies that shape the consumption of their own products, it’s not hard to see where the roadblock lies. Especially when, in 2016, the Beverages Council admitted to spending a "vast amount of resources" lobbying against a sugar tax, as well as boasting of its success at "keeping the topic of a tax off the table from both of the major political parties".
Above this, MPs such as Barnaby Joyce offer the solution to the obesity crisis as, “go for a run”, telling Australians not to look to the Government to solve the problem -- a convenient stance given 85 percent of Australian sugar is exported, generating a $2 billion income and employing 16,000 people in the industry, feeding into the conspiracy that big sugar companies will continue to do what it takes to spin public and political perception in order to protect their multi-billion dollar empire.
LNP backbencher George Christensen, a supporter of the sugar industry, says, “I think that a lot of the issue with obesity has got to come back to telling people that they are personally responsible for the choices they make." Meanwhile, we’re witnessing more than half of children aged between six and 12 being treated for tooth decay, with many children under the age of five having multiple teeth extracted, as well as this generation of children also being the first to be treated for fatty liver disease.
There is personal responsibility, yes. But there is also the responsibility our government has to work with the Australian public to empower positive change.
It can start by lowering the cost of healthy food to make it more affordable (if you’ve ever wanted to know the weekly grocery bill for a family of six who eat a grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free diet, I can assure you, you don’t want to know), removing advertising of junk food in our media, withdrawing unhealthy food and drink sponsorship of sporting events, implementing a sugar tax, and at the very least, adding labelling to packaged food and drink which clearly displays the amount of sugar in a way that is easy to read and therefore creates a more mindful approach to the foods we choose to consume.
Whatever your standpoint on sugar, we can’t continue to deny that obesity has become a public health crisis in Australia and it’s time the Government stopped sugar-coating the truth and became part of the solution, not the problem.
Featured image: Getty.