Excessive sugar consumption harmful to health and hard to avoid – review confirms

Excessive consumption of sugar is harmful for health and hard for consumers to avoid, a review by the Royal Society of New Zealand confirms. It is hard to avoid because it is difficult to work out how much added sugar is in food and drink. The Royal Society of New Zealand is providing information to help clarify the role of sugar in health for New Zealanders, today publishing an evidence update, a fact sheet and a short animation based on a review of expert research.

Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford, President of the Society, said the Society undertook the review to help provide clarity for New Zealanders on the issue of sugar and health, given the amount of confusing information in the community and media.

“It is difficult to know just how much sugar you are consuming. With a typical can of sugar-sweetened fizzy drink containing 9 teaspoons of sugar, and sugar added to a wide range of food products in New Zealand, including items we think of as savoury, it is likely that many New Zealanders are exceeding World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines regularly, if not every day.”

Current WHO guidelines put excessive consumption at over 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day for most people.  To further promote health, the WHO recommends keeping sugar intake for adults and children to below 6 teaspoons per day, but the guidelines do not apply to sugars found in whole fruits, milk and vegetables.

Food labelling in New Zealand does not allow consumers to assess how much sugar has been added to food and drink, making it difficult to follow these recommendations.

While it is just one aspect of our diet and lifestyle, sugar has come under increasing scrutiny as the understanding of how it is used and processed in the body has increased.

The Society consulted widely with recognised experts both in New Zealand and internationally to produce the evidence summary. Research studies show that large intakes of sugar in the diet leads to weight gain and dental decay. High sugar intakes are also associated with metabolic diseases such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and gout.

There is a lot of research underway to determine whether different sugars have different impacts on health. Research is looking at causes of high levels of fat in the blood, insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, abdominal fat gain, gout and increased blood pressure.

There is growing evidence that fructose has a role in several diseases, including gout development, which is of particular interest to New Zealand given the high prevalence of gout in New Zealand’s Pacific Island population. Fructose typically makes up about half of the refined sugar we use and consume in sweetened food and drinks each day. 

“The role of sugar in developing obesity is also important given that New Zealand is now ranked third after the US and Mexico for rates of obesity,” said Professor Bedford.

Current New Zealand Health Survey data from the Ministry of Health indicates that 31% of adults and 11% of children aged 2-14 are obese.

“There is still more research to be done to fully establish and confirm the links between sugar consumption and health impacts,” Professor Bedford said, “but there is a growing weight of evidence that the risks posed by excessive sugar in diets, especially added sugar in sweetened drinks and processed foods, need to be taken seriously.”

Copies of the factsheet and supporting resources can be found at www.royalsociety.org.nz/sugar