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Added sugar is hiding in even more foods than you think

9Coach logo 9Coach 5/08/2017 Sam Downing
More than half of the almost 16,000 core foods had sugar added to them. © Getty Images More than half of the almost 16,000 core foods had sugar added to them.

Pick up something boxed, wrapped or packaged in the supermarket and there’s a good chance it’s had sugar added to it: a new Australian review has revealed 70 percent of packaged foods contain added sugar.

Researchers from the George Institute for Global Health say the finding underscores the need for food labels, including the health star rating (HSR) system, to distinguish between total sugar and added sugar.  

Added sugars (aka free sugars) are those added to foods and drinks by manufacturers, as opposed to the sugars that occur naturally in things like milk and fruit. Currently, nutrition information panels in Australia lump both kinds in under "sugar".

“Good sugars are an integral part of a healthy diet and we need to be able to separate sugars naturally present in dairy, fruits and vegetables from sugars added during manufacturing,” said the Institute’s Professor Bruce Neal in a statement.

“Added sugars are empty calories and a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic and tooth decay. Australians would be much better off if they could quickly and easily see how much sugar has been added.”

For the study, published in the journal Nutrients, the George Institute team analysed 34,000 packaged foods from two categories: core foods (aka stuff you need to eat to stay healthy and nourished) and discretionary foods (aka “sometimes” foods aka junk food).

Unsurprisingly, 87 percent of the more than 18,000 discretionary foods included added sugar — the likes of cakes, pies, ice cream, pastries, processed meats, potato chips and soft drinks contained on average almost four times more added sugar than core foods like cheese, milk, bread, yoghurts or oats.

But even more than half of the almost 16,000 core foods also had sugar added to them.

The George Institute believes added sugar needs to be factored into the algorithm that computes the HSR — which has (deservedly) come under fire for giving seemingly unhealthy foods high star ratings, partly because it currently calculates ratings based on total sugar rather than splitting sugar into added vs natural.

 “One of the key criticisms of the HSR has been that it doesn’t always align with Australian dietary guidelines,” stated the study’s co-author Dr Sanne Peters. “Using added sugars instead of total sugars means it does a much better job of this.”

She said discretionary foods such as muesli bars, jam, rice puddings, and chutney and other sauces and spreads — which score highly under the current HSR calculation, despite containing lots of added sugar — would be more accurately rate  d if the source of their sugar was factored in.

The World Health Organisation recommends no more than 10 percent (and ideally only five percent) of your daily calories come from added or free sugars. In Australia, more than half of us regularly exceed this recommendation — especially children and teenagers.

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