Hitting the sweet spot? Australia’s sugar consumption decline

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 22nd July 2015

39 5cups_diagramAustralia’s sugar consumption has fallen by 16.5 per cent from 1970 to 2011, according to Australian research published in this month’s European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study, ‘Apparent Consumption of Refined Sugar in Australia (1938-2011)’, found per capita sugar consumption has dropped from 50.3 kilograms in 1970 to 42.0 kilograms in 2011.

Using the same methodology as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australian researchers Tom McNeill and Bill Shrapnel were able to update the data on apparent consumption of sugar, providing the most robust and reliable published report to date.

“Using the same methodology as the ABS was vital as it enabled us to create a continuous data series for apparent consumption of refined sugar in Australia over a 73-year period,” said Shrapnel.

“Sugar consumption in Australia appears to have been relatively stable in the three decades following the end of World War 2 but since the late 1970s there has been a substantial decline,” he said.

Key findings

  • Per capita sugar consumption peaked in Australia at 57.0kg per year in 1951.
  • For three decades from the late 1940s to the late 1970s per capita sugar consumption averaged about 50kg per year.
  • A steady fall in apparent consumption of sugar has occurred in the last 40 years, dropping 16.5 per cent, from 50.3kg per capita in 1970 to 42.0kg in 2011.

The downward trend in refined sugars consumption is consistent with recent findings from the Australian Health Survey (2011-12) and trends in sales of sugar-sweetened drinks in Australia:

  • Total mean sugars as a contribution of energy intake for all persons appears to have dropped one per cent from 1995-2011
  • From 1997-2011, annual refined sugars contribution from water based beverages fell 17%, from 9.2 kilograms per capita in 1997 to 7.6 kilograms in 2011

“Our findings are consistent with those of both the recent Australian Health Survey and a study of trends in sugar-sweetened beverages, so we can be fairly confident that sugar consumption is in long-term decline,” Shrapnel said.

“To put the decline in consumption into context, by 2011, Australians were each consuming 8.3kg or 39.5 cups of sugar less per year compared to 1970,” said Shrapnel.

Health implications

The study did not address the possible health implications of the downward trend in apparent consumption of sugar.

“The downward trend in sugar consumption observed in our study is interesting because it runs counter to recent assumptions that sugar intake is rising and driving increasing rates of overweight and obesity in Australia. However, cause and effect conclusions cannot be drawn from our study,” said Shrapnel.

“Given the current attention being paid to sugar, we thought it was essential that healthcare professionals and policy makers had access to recent and accurate data on trends in sugar consumption. Informed policies can now be developed from such studies,” Shrapnel said.

The ABS methodology for determining apparent consumption of refined sugar uses sales by Australian sugar refiners, imports of refined sugar and the net balance of refined sugar contained in imported and exported foods to determine the amount of sugar that has apparently been consumed in Australia. Per capita apparent consumption is then estimated using population estimates.

In the study, refined sugar was defined as sucrose in the forms of refined, raw or liquified sugars manufactured for human consumption, which represents the major proportion of sugar consumed in Australia. The study did not include alternative sweeteners – honey, glucose, fructose, dextrose and syrups such as golden syrup and treacle.

“Alternative sweeteners were not included in our study because the ABS reports on these separately to refined sugar,” Shrapnel said.

“We had to retain the existing methodology to make sure we were comparing apples with apples.”