Supporting evidence-informed policy work on added sugars labelling

Added sugar labelling in Australia and New Zealand

Foods and drinks can contain both ‘naturally occurring’ and ‘added’ sugars. Excess consumption of added sugars is associated with dental caries, poor dietary quality and excess weight gain. Excess weight gain can increase a person’s risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease and many cancers. These illnesses reduce quality of life and cut thousands of Australian and New Zealand lives short each year.

Australians and New Zealanders currently eat too much added sugar with more than one in two exceeding the World Health Organization maximum recommended limit for intake of sugars. In Australia, sugar intakes are highest for the most socio-economically disadvantaged households, a group that experiences the greatest diet-related disease burden.

What is added sugar?

Existing Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend avoiding added sugars, whereas more recent World Health Organization guidance recommends limiting consumption of ‘free’ sugars, which includes not just added sugars but also sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. Foods high in added or free sugars may displace more nutritious foods in the diet and contribute to dental caries, unhealthy weight gain, and non-communicable diseases. Currently, manufacturers in Australia and New Zealand are required to provide only ‘total sugars’ information in the mandatory nutrition information panel, meaning consumers have no easy way to identify the added or free sugars they should be avoiding.

The George Institute for Global Health joins public health and consumer groups in supporting improvements to the labelling of sugars of packaged food and drinks in support of dietary guidelines and for better health outcomes.

How can consumers cut sugar intake?

There are a number of steps that consumers can take to reduce their intake of added sugars. They include:

  • Look out for added sugars on the ingredients list. There are more than 800 terms, but common ones include fructose, rice syrup, dextrose, maple syrup, glucose, sucrose and all types of sugar (brown, white, raw).
  • If a product contains more than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams, it probably contains added sugar. Look for those that have under five grams per 100 grams instead.
  • Cut back on foods that are high in added sugar, such as confectionery, ice-cream, sugary drinks, flavoured milk, biscuits and cakes.
  • When choosing between products, opt for plain and unsweetened varieties e.g. natural yoghurt, plain milk and unflavoured meats.
  • Spend more around the perimeter of the supermarket where you’ll find healthy staples including fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, nuts, meat and bread. These foods should make up the majority of your diet.

Download the FoodSwitch app. It will tell you how much added sugar is in a product and recommend healthier alternatives to switch to.

Policy action on added sugar

Consumers have a right to know what is in the foods they choose to buy. Through added sugars labelling reform, the government can ensure that food manufacturers accurately inform consumers about added sugars in packaged foods, enabling consumers to identify and limit added sugars as advised by the dietary guidelines. Beyond informing consumers, added sugar labelling could also stimulate food manufacturers to cut the sugars they add to products, or develop new products with less added sugars. Provided manufacturers do not simply substitute added sugars with other unhealthy ingredients, such as non-nutritive sweeteners, added sugar labelling could stimulate reformulation to create a heathier food supply and reduce the number of high added sugar products available for sale. This means that all consumers could eat better, regardless of where they shop or how much they understand information on labels.

In 2017, the Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (now the Food Ministers’ Meeting) began looking at sugar labelling and regulatory options for improving information provided by manufacturers on labels. In August 2019, the Forum requested Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to review nutrition labelling for added sugars. At that time, the Forum noted that the option to quantify added sugars in the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) best met the objective of providing adequate contextual information to enable consumers to make informed choices consistent with dietary guidelines recommendations. Forum Ministers also noted that an option for pictorial display (e.g. teaspoons) applied to sugary drinks warranted further consideration, along with other options. FSANZ is currently reviewing whether and how the Food Standards Code should be amended, including technical issues such as how ‘added sugars’ should be defined in any regulatory updates. To ensure that food labels accurately inform consumers about added sugar content levels and enable consumers to identify healthier options, reforms must:

  • include mandatory quantification of added sugars in the nutrition information panel (NIP);
  • incorporate a comprehensive definition of added sugars that includes all types of added sugars and minimises risk of potential loopholes;
  • be implemented without delay; and,
  • be supported by a complementary suite of measures to promote healthier diets.

Please refer to The George Institute's ‘Supporting evidence-informed policy work on added sugar’ Report on this page commissioned by VicHealth to investigate what food components should be included in a definition of ‘added sugars’ if regulatory reforms were to proceed.