Obesity conversation needs to centre on food literacy

11 October 2016

The discussion around obesity needs to move from one of blaming individual foods and drinks to one centred on food literacy and moderation, says Katherine Rich.

“The present conversation is not getting us anywhere because it’s particularly centred on attacking consumption of sugary beverages when the facts show there are many factors contributing to energy imbalance.

“We should be concentrating our time and effort on educating people that moderation is the key and that when it comes to beverages, water should be the first preference.

“I believe all the media coverage of the sugar issue has been positive because it’s made New Zealanders think about their consumption.

“The facts show that the message about over-consuming sugary food and drink is starting to get through. Sales figures released by the NZ Beverage Council today show that New Zealanders are consuming fewer sugary drinks and more low- or no-sugar drinks each year.  The whole sugar category in supermarkets has also declined significantly over the past five years.

“A lot of that change in consumption is also because consumers are hearing the education programmes from the Government, the Health Promotion Agency, and industry. 

“And it’s happening without any regulation or a rise in food or beverage taxes. At the same time, obesity rates continue to climb. Surely, if sugary drinks were the only problem, then the reverse would be happening and obesity rates would be declining in line with consumption.

“Ultimately, obesity is caused by people consuming more kilojoules than their bodies need, and the whole issue is much more complex than pointing the finger at one particular source of kilojoules.

“A lot of the decline in consumption of full-sugar carbonated beverages is also due to a massive reformulation over the past 10 years or so by manufacturers offering a wider range of choice to consumers, including many low-cal and no-cal options, which they are backing up with healthy food and lifestyle programmes in schools and communities. In addition, our two biggest manufacturers, in partnership with the Government, have voluntarily refused to supply schools with sugar drinks for several years now.

“Taxing or banning sugar drinks won’t work. Coca-Cola NZ recently pointed out that they contribute just 1.5 per cent of the total energy in an average New Zealand adult’s diet.

“Taxes haven’t worked anywhere in the world. Mexico's tax has reduced consumption by 0.5 per cent – about one sip per person – in the two years since it was introduced. Unit sales dropped 3 per cent after the tax was introduced, but a year later had regained 3 per cent, taking them back basically to previous levels. Following the tax, low-sugar carbonated beverages are more expensive than sugary ones, so there is absolutely no price signal to consumers as a result of the tax.

“FGC believes that food literacy centred on moderation, including emphasising that water should be the first preference during the day, is one of the best options to tackle obesity and encourage healthier lifestyles. This policy mirrors the Government’s eating and activity guidelines for adults, which complement its package of initiatives aimed at reducing childhood obesity.

“When I look back at New Zealand history, official advice about sugar consumption from the Ministry of Health hasn’t changed much in 70 years. The message has always been don’t eat too many sweet things and eat a varied diet with lots of fresh vegetables, fruit and protein.  Moderation remains the best message, but it doesn’t make an eye-catching headline.

“It’s time those who target individual products had a close look at the guidelines and accepted that education is the only angle that will work. You can’t tax or regulate people slim.”