Taxing sugary drinks is the least we can do

IT IS not all sweetness and light where sugar is concerned.

It is disguised, hidden and renamed on food labels, and for all our education and good intentions, putting such bright lipstick on a big, fat pig is enough to fool most of us.

No wonder we are blowing out like overinflated beach balls.

Two out of three of us carry extra weight in our saddlebags, and even when we try to shape up by eating better, we are seemingly thwarted at each dietary turn.

Our obsession with sweet stuff has even led to the manipulation of nature, with Melbourne Zoo revealing last month that it has had to wean animals off fruit because its now-higher sugar content as a result of genetic playing was making the animals fat and rotting their teeth.

It was also revealed its processed, refined forms even sometimes infiltrate that ancient natural wonder, honey. A fifth of Australian honey tested in a global Macquarie University study was not the real deal, even if the label claimed it was. A third of Queensland samples were not as they claimed.

A recent study found that many products claiming to be honey were impure and contained substitute sugars. Picture: iStock
A recent study found that many products claiming to be honey were impure and contained substitute sugars. Picture: iStock

In Australia, authorities apparently only test imported honey and use an old testing technique that can't detect saccharine impostors such as rice syrup, which are commonly used by shonks to dilute honey.

Food labelling is partly to blame. In August, the Australian Consumer Association asked for food labels to list how many teaspoons of sugar of all kinds are within a product instead of the nebulous listing of grams, which takes the application of maths skills that not all of us have to interpret.

 

The ACA also wants added sugar included separately in the ingredient list. Repeated studies have shown that we are easily tricked into eating food we think is healthy.

We buy low-fat milk because we think it is better for us, but fail to notice that it has added sugar to bolster flavour.

Our barbecue sauce, toasted muesli and fruit juice are loaded with the sweet stuff, secreted within multiple digits on minuscule labels.

We want to eat well, but are primally drawn to processed food that is high in sugars, and that is effectively dirty fuel for our already-sputtering engines.

Food labelling's last comprehensive review was in 2011, before food manufacturers got really clever, before the use of weasel words hit its zenith, and before we knew we were eating ourselves into an upsized package of processed portliness.

Since then, there has been a bit of tweaking around the edges and tightening of rules on obvious high-kilojoule, low-nutrient meals such as takeaway treats. Advertising claims are tested and exposed as untruths when enough complaints are lodged.

But sugar - that delicious instant fuel that delights even as it causes highs, lows, cancer and diabetes - has run the gauntlet and must be urgently yarded in.

Sugar has found its way into foods that we think are healthy, and not just those that we know are not. Picture: iStock
Sugar has found its way into foods that we think are healthy, and not just those that we know are not. Picture: iStock

In its 2018 statement on nutrition, the Australian Medical Association asked for a tax on sugary drinks. Where sugar is concerned, it is the most obvious place to start with such explicit intervention, and the usually conservative body described the nanny state request as a "matter of urgency".

The Government has resisted taxing sugary processed food, arguing that picking apart products to identify the fairy-floss felons was too complex. But sugary drinks are easy to identify and easy to tax at the source. And it would not be a huge leap to take that tax and directly apply it as a subsidy on fresh, whole food and make it cheaper. The overfed and undernourished could only benefit.

Not all approaches to hauling in our rampant sugar consumption are as sweetly simple or obvious, because sugar takes on many guises, and that has allowed it to escape and run wild.

In Australia, added sugars can be disguised under 42 different names, and are often then sprinkled through ingredient lists.

This splitting up and spreading out means it has become as malevolent as an army of undercover agents.

It hides in the luscious folds of health sometimes, too, with a British medical journal report last week revealing almost all yoghurts on the market have more sugar than soft drink. Sugar, by any other name, tastes just as sweet, and because we are simple folk, we are wired crave it.

It should be simple: a cursory look at the ingredient list should reveal if a product contains added sugar. The higher up the list, the bigger the proportion of sugar the item contains.

We should generally avoid those loaded morsels, because our bodies don't need much of that sweet misery, at least not in its processed form. It is really very simple: the less processed, the more honest and the closer to nature the better. And less is usually more.

Labels are again the weak link in the processed food chain - and we can't be blamed for believing what we read. For the processed food industry, it is like taking candy from a baby. We need reform and we need simplicity both in our approach to food choices, and on the labels that are slapped on to the processed varieties.

While overwhelmingly we need to get back to eating more food still in its natural state and to embrace the notion that if it comes in a box or has an advertising campaign, it is probably not good for us, we need help with more honest labels, too.

We are being made ill by the very breakfast cereal, yoghurt and fresh juice we think is nourishing us.

And there is nothing sweet about that.

Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalist and a journalism lecturer.



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