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The Paradox of Oz: Sugars down, obesity up

A casual glance at either the print or social media would lead one to conclude with absolute certainty that the world is eating more and more sugar and consequently is getting fatter and fatter. No one could dispute the latter with very clear objective data to show that global obesity rates are experiencing a relentless rise. The former part of this apparent ‘fact’ is very much out of kilter with the objective data. In a review of the changes in the percentage calories from sugar over recent times based on national dietary surveys, it is clear that there is no relentless rise in sugar intake globally and, if anything, there are clear signs of a drop in sugar intake over recent times. The following data has been extracted from a major review of global patterns of sugar intake based on national diet surveys[1]:

Country
Survey 1
Survey
2
Sugar calories
 (%)
 in survey 1
Sugar calories
(%) in survey 2
Sugars defined
as:
Australia
1983
2011/12
17.0
18.6
All
Austria
1998
2012
9.0
9.0
Sucrose
Denmark
1995
2003/6
9.0
9.0
Added
Finland
1992
2012
9.0
9.2
Sucrose
France
1993/4
2006/7
12.0
14.4
Sugars
New Zealand
1989
2008/9
6.6
8.2
Sucrose
Norway
1997
2010/11
9.5
7.2
Added
Sweden
1989
2010/11
7.7
9.4
Sucrose
Netherlands
1987/8
2007/10
23.6
18.0
All
UK
2000/1
2011/12
13.5
11.6
Added


From the above data, it is clear that over the last 30 or more years, the intake of sugars, however defined, has not shown any concerted global tend to increase. The above data are for males and the female data is pretty similar. Some countries have data on both sexes combined and again they show no upward trend: Ireland constant at 16.6% of calories from non-milk sugars over the period 1997-2006 and the USA with values of 13.9 and 11.8% of calories from added sugars over the period 1971/75 to 2007/8.

The most exact analysis of trends in sugar intake comes from my alma mater at Sydney University led by Professor Jenny Brand-Miller[2]. These authors looked at four independent data sets to examine the changing patterns of sugar intake in Australia. The authors point out that obesity continues to rise in the Land of Oz: obesity rates have quadrupled from childhood into adulthood for both males and females with Australia and New Zealand exhibiting the largest single absolute rise in obesity since 1980 in a global comparison such data[3]. So what of their sugar intake?

The Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN measures the “disappearance” of sugar in countries worldwide which takes overall national production data, adds imports and subtracts both exports and non-human use. If used wisely and for time trends only, such data can be very valuable. In Australia, such data shows a decline in per capita intake of sugar from 152 grams per day in 1980 to 127 in 2011. Using similar techniques, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows a 17% reduction in apparent sugar consumption from 1961 to 2011 (139 to 115g/hd/d). Data from Australian National Nutrition Surveys, which are based on surveys of actual sugar intake at individual level, also show a decline in total sugar intake, from 115 grams per day in 1995 to 105 in 2012. Given that among the devils of sugar sources, those from beverages are considered as the Satanic level, it is interesting to note that such Satanic influences have also fallen over time. No matter how defined (soft drinks, sugar sweetened beverages, sugary products, sodas plus juices etc.), the time-related decline of sugar intake in liquid form is still obvious. Data from industry sources were also made available to the authors and once again, no matter how defined, the same pattern of a decline in solid and liquid sugar intake is seen.  For example, the % of children classified as “consumers “ of sugar-sweetened beverages declined from about 65% in 1995 to 25% in 2012. Energy from sugar-sweetened beverages plus juices in children fell from an average of 9.2 % of calories in 1995 to about 5.5% in 2012. All in all, there is not a shred of evidence from the either global overview or the Australian deep-dive into sugar intakes to suggest any rise whatsoever in sugar intakes.

Why therefore do we suffer the avalanche of data telling us about the poisonous nature of sugar and the wicked damage it is doing to the health of our children? In my view this is a consequence of our post truth era where post-truth is defined by The Oxford Dictionary as: ‘An adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. You see, sugar was extracted on the back of the global slave trade and is now used by corporate food giants to manipulate the food supply to make a tasteless mechanically derived ultra-processed foods into ones which are rendered hyper-palatable with copious levels of added sugars. Gurus from California with impeccable medical backgrounds have shown conclusively that sugar is toxic, the new tobacco in fact. Tax the damn thing and be done with it! That’s the emotional argument. It wins out every time against the peer-reviewed data cited in this blog. As a life timer in nutrition I have come to accept this and other such misuse of nutritional data and its adaptation by populist experts and governmental departments. But at least I can rant on my blog. It’s cheaper than therapy!!!




[1] Wittekind A & Walton J (2014) Worldwide trends in dietary sugars intake. Nutrition Research Reviews, 27, 330-345
[2] Brand-Miller JC & Barclay A (2017).  Declining consumption of added sugars and sugar sweetened beverages in Australia: a challenge for obesity prevention. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 8th, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.145318
[3] . Ng M, Fleming T, Robinson M, Thomson B, Graetz N, Margono C, Mullany EC, Biryukov S, Abbafati C, Abera SF, et al. Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980-2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. Lancet 2014;384:766–81.

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