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Declining sugar consumption in Australia

The Australian Paradox

The Australian Paradox describes the phenomenon of rising obesity coinciding with a decline in sugar consumption in Australia. The term was used in a paper published in 2011 by professor Jennie Brand Miller and Dr Alan Barclay. Since then some have argued the figures and questioned the data sources. The follow up paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2017 examined four different data sources and confirms the decline.  

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Data source 1
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) food balance sheets for Australia (FAOSTAT data) reflects the total amount of sugars available (including imports) for human consumption during the year, including sugars in processed foods.

FAOSTAT data showed per capita availability of added or refined sugars fell 16% between 1980 and 2011, from 152g/day to 127g/d.

Sugars are defined as sugar cane, sugar beet, refined sugar, confectionery sugar, flavoured sugar, pure fructose and syrups, maltose, glucose and dextrose, isoglucose (HFCS), lactose, maple sugar and syrups and molasses.

Unlike Australia, FAOSTAT food balance sheets (1980-2011) showed New Zealand have experienced an increase in availability of added sugars.

Data sources 2 & 3         
The two most recent national dietary surveys undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) were in 1995 and 2011-12. Added sugars data in the 2011-12 data sets were calculated using a specially developed food composition database, whereas the 1995 added sugars data was generated by the CSIRO in a paper by Cobiac et al. Variation in the definition of added sugars was factored into the comparison.

These two national dietary surveys show that between 1995 and 2011-12:

  • Added sugars intake declined in adult men (from 79g to 59g/d) but not women (44-42g/d). 
  • Percent energy from added sugars fell 10% in adult men (from 10 to 9%) but non-significantly in adult women (~9%).
  • Percent energy from added sugars declined in children and youth (2-18yrs); it fell 25% in boys (from 15 to 11%) and 22% in girls (from 14 to 11%).

Australian adults are consuming 9% of their energy as added sugars. Children are consuming 11%, significantly less than they were in 1995.

  • The proportion of energy from sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) including 100% fruit juice declined by 10% in men, by 20% in women, and by 35% in children.
  • The proportion of adults consuming SSB on the day of the survey fell from 35% to 30.6%; the proportion consuming intensely sweetened beverages went up to 11.1%.
  • The proportion of added sugars contributed by soft drinks declined 15% in men and 13% in women.
  • The proportion of children who consumed SSB on the day of the survey fell 31% (from 68.1% to 46.7%). The proportion of energy as SSBs and 100% juice decreased 35% (from 9.3 to 6%). In 2011-12 the total volume of SSB consumed was 217ml/d across all children, and 355ml/d in consumers only (children who consumed SSB on the day of the survey).

Another source of national data on SSB in children was the analysis of the 2007 Australian Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. It found:

  • 47% of children aged 2-16 yrs reported drinking SSB on the day of the survey (similar to the 2011-12 survey).
  • Across all children 5% energy was contributed by SSB including 100% juice: 1.6% from sugar sweetened soft drinks; 2% from 100% juice; and 1.4% from cordials and fruit drinks.

Australian adults and children are consuming less sugar sweetened beverages than they were in 1995.

Data source 4
Industry sales data represents an independent source of information on consumption of sugar sweetened beverages (SSB). Volume sales data were adjusted to include food service, vending, convenience and dining purchases of carbonated soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, iced tea and mineral water, non-sugar based varieties and still water. Absolute mass of sugars was divided by annualised population data to determine per capita trends over time.

Industry data show added sugars from carbonated soft drinks fell 26% from 23 to 17g/d between 1997 and 2011, and fell similarly in noncarbonated beverages.

What does it all mean?
The authors conclude that their findings challenge the widespread belief that energy from added sugars or sugars in solution are uniquely linked to the prevalence of obesity, and argue against the assumption that the reduced consumption of SSB and SSB will, in themselves, help to reverse societal trends in obesity and chronic disease. They say that although overconsumption of energy must be addressed, their analysis provides little evidence to support a particular focus on any one source of energy and there may be unintended consequences of a singular focus on refined sugars and SSB. They suggest a coordinated approach to lowering intakes of all discretionary foods and beverages is needed.

PS: Popular sugar myths
Claims like those made in That Sugar Film that Australians eat 40 teaspoons of sugar a day are wrong. The 2011-12 survey showed total sugars were 26 teaspoons and free sugars are 14 teaspoons per day (1 teaspoon of sugar is 4.2g).

Brand-Miller JC, Barclay AW. Declining consumption of added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages in Australia: a challenge for obesity prevention. Am J Clin Nutr 2017 DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.116.145318

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