Consumers could be unknowingly consuming more sugar than intended, with more than 400 different names for added sugars were found on packaged foods labels.
According to Australian Dietary Guidelines, the average adult daily intake of sugar should be about 50g or 12 teaspoons per day.
However, the annual FoodSwitch: State of the Food Supply report found the unknown added sugar in some common food items was causing Australians to consume nearly twice the recommended limit.
George Institute Dietitian Dr Daisy Coyle said this “added sugar by stealth” – up to 22 teaspoons per day – could be added to many people’s diets without them realising.
“Too much sugar is contributing to spiralling rates of obesity and associated chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes,” she said.
“But while most of us know it’s bad for us, cutting back is hard when you can’t tell how much is in the food you are buying – right now, manufacturers are only required to list total sugars on the product’s nutrition information panel.”
George Institute researchers used the government developed Health Star Rating (HSR) system criteria to assess more than 25,000 packaged food and drinks being sold in supermarkets across Australia.
It found Woolworths own-brands still have the highest overall healthiness rating, with Coles and IGA in joint second place and ALDI coming in as least healthy.
Dr Coyle is calling for a new approach to food supply labelling in an effort to better inform consumers.
“One of the biggest barriers to success of the HSR program is that it remains voluntary – we found only 41 per cent of products displayed an HSR on the pack – so there isn’t a level playing field,” she said.
“And while the top 20 manufacturers have higher rates of uptake, at around 70 per cent, there is huge variation, with (for example) no products displaying an HSR on the pack for over 96 per cent for The Smith’s Snackfood Company products.”
Dr Coyle said the voluntary HSR system has been in place since 2014, but compliance remains low at around 40 per cent, and this has worsened since last year’s report.
“Most notably, IGA has chosen not to participate in the HSR scheme at all, even though they are one of Australia’s biggest retailers,” she said.
The Australian government has set an industry benchmark of 70 per cent compliance by 2025, but this target remains voluntary for food manufacturers to comply with.
However, public consultation is expected to start on proposed changes to food labels, which would require companies to display the added sugar content on their food products’ nutritional information panel.
Dr Coyle said while this was an important step towards helping Australians make informed choices, any changes were likely to take some time to be adopted.
“Currently, the only way shoppers can tell how much added sugar is in a product is by downloading the FoodSwitch App and scanning the barcode – this will give an estimate of added sugar content, as well as suggesting healthier alternatives to switch to,” she said.
Dr Coyle said shoppers are encouraged to check the food labels of products they’re buying to know what they’re putting in their mouths.
“Consumers deserve to know what’s in the food they are eating, and we strongly support having the amount of added sugar in a product clearly spelt out. This could also prompt the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar they’re pouring into processed foods,” Dr Coyle said.
“We don’t want shoppers to have to wait years for this information, we want people to be able to make informed choices now – small changes can really add up.”