Katherine Rich: Call to label added sugars overlooks science

23 November 2017

In the past couple of days, lobby group Consumer NZ and the Dental Association have called on the governments of New Zealand and Australia to legislate for new food labels that list added sugars.

Making sure people know how much sugar is in packaged foods is a great idea, which is why this already happens and has done for many decades.

Food companies already list the number of grams of sugar per 100grams and per serving in products. This is mandated by law.

Whether people actually read and follow labels is one of those things that will be debated forever, but one thing is agreed: many people need to cut down on their sugar intake. In saying that, many people also need to cut down on their intake of salt and fat too, plus get a whole lot more active. Less energy, more moving.

While calling for added sugars labels seems to be the latest campaign, you won't find many people with knowledge of the food industry, food manufacturing, or nutrition thinking it's a great idea – for some very practical reasons:

Sugars are already on the Nutrition Information Panel

The NIP shows the values for the level of carbohydrates and sugars in a product. This provides useful information for consumers, who can easily see how much of the total carbohydrate is made up of sugars. The NIP gives this information in both 100g (which is useful to compare to another similar product), and per serve. Some labels will also show how much each nutrient contributes to an average adult’s daily intake. A NZ Food and Grocery Council expert has advised me that the reference value (set of recommendations) for daily sugar intake is 90g. That means if a food contains 9g of sugar in one serve, that would be about 10% of recommended daily intake.

Sugars are already listed in the ingredients list

This is where information specifically on added sugars can be found. These list all ingredients in the product, with the largest ingredient amount being listed first, and the lowest ingredient listed last. Looking at where sugars feature in the ingredients list will give an idea of how much and how many added sugars are in the food.

Sugars are sugars

There have been calls for the carbohydrate value on the NIP to be further broken down to show the level of added sugars as well as the total sugar level. Nutrition experts will tell you that when it comes to the human body, there is no difference between sugars naturally found in foods and what is added into food industry recipes. Our bodies process sugars the same, whether they are naturally present in ingredients (e.g. fruits or milk), or are added (e.g. table sugar). This is why looking at total sugars is important. It's the total amount that matters overall because that's what's being consumed by the person.

Sugar content in ingredients will vary, therefore added sugars will vary

Anyone who bakes at home will know that the amount of sugar can vary depending on the amount of the sweetness of other ingredients. For many ingredients this can vary over a season. A good example is a gooseberry shortcake I make. The tartness of the gooseberries varies during the season so I add more or less sugar to the recipe to get the same taste I know my family expects. It's the same for food manufacturing. Depending on the food, food makers are aiming for a certain taste and a consistent composition, as reported on the NIP, which can be verified by authorities. The total sugars will not change but the amount of added sugars in a recipe can change regularly. For some products it could be every week. Should a manufacturer be required to produce a different label to accurately reflect any small recipe variation, this would add significant cost. New labels and short orders are a costly business, not to mention additional time in preparing multiple NIPs across the season. It is difficult to justify this additional cost burden for an outcome that makes no physiological difference to the end consumer. The cost and benefit for any government intervention should always be considered.

Added sugars can't be verified

This reason might surprise many people. A chemical analysis made on a final food product can only identify the total sugars. If added sugars were to be included in the NIP this would present an anomaly where the value would not be able to be externally verified. Currently, all information given on a NIP can be assessed by a third party or a regulator such as the Ministry for Primary Industries. While some countries have introduced added sugar labelling, the reality is regulators will never be able to verify the exact sugar composition.

In summary, current food labels do provide information in relation to sugars, both total and added to foods. Rather than promote over-regulation and increase costs to end consumers, the focus would be better spent on greater education for consumers so they can understand and use the existing information that's already there.

Concern about sugar intake has dominated national media and discussion for the past decade, and this has had a big impact on changing consumer choices and driving food companies to reformulate current products and launch new low/zero sugar versions.

Thinking about the sugar content in food, making water the main source of refreshment, consuming treat foods only in moderation, and the importance of getting a whole lot more active are also important messages to keep repeating.