Sugar: sweet regulatory nothings

Studies continue to show that added sugar consumption is a public health concern, and that strategies should be implemented in a multi-sectorial approach to address it. With as much as 70% of pre-packaged foods containing sugar, it is difficult for the consumer to avoid it. Food regulations are one platform that could have a positive effect on added sugar consumption – and therefore have a positive health impact on consumers.

One of the regulations that has been implemented in South Africa is the health promotion levy, also known as the ‘sugar tax’. This has been imposed on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages to discourage consumers from purchasing these products, as well as encouraging industry to decrease the amount of sugar that is added to these products. Another strategy that the Department of Health is planning is the implementation of mandatory front-of-pack labelling on processed foods, in which sugar is one of the nutrients that will be called out on the label. The consumer will be able to make an informed decision based on the ‘red’, ‘yellow’ or ‘green’ light associated with the product’s sugar content.

A further tool that our current labelling regulations (R.146/2010) provide for the consumer is the declaration of total sugar content in the nutritional information table (although this is only mandatory for food products that carry nutrient content claims). However, the ‘total sugar’ figure you see in the nutritional information tables is often confused with ‘added sugar’. ‘Total sugar’ is defined as the sum of intrinsic sugars (naturally present) and added sugar. ‘Added sugar’ is any sugar added to foodstuffs during processing, and includes (but is not limited to) honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, de-flavoured and/or de-ionised fruit juice, high-fructose corn syrup and malt, or any other syrup of various origins. If a consumer sees full-cream milk containing 5.3g of total sugar per 100g, it is not because the manufacturer adds sugar, but rather due to the lactose naturally present in milk.

This is part of the reason that countries such as the United States have started declaring both total and added sugars in the nutritional table: it assists the consumer in making an informed choice.

Another way that the consumer can determine the level of sugar in a foodstuff is by looking at the ingredient list. On all products, ingredients are required to be listed in descending order of mass. One could therefore deduce that if an added sugar is one of the first ingredients on the list, the product is likely to be high in added sugar.

As we keep an eye on increasing mortality rates due to ‘chronic diseases of the lifestyle’ that could be the result of a diet high in added sugar, it will be interesting to see whether the above strategies are successful in changing these statistics. But perhaps more importantly, we wait to see if other governmental groups will come to the party with further approaches, such as the improved education of consumers. After all: teamwork makes the dream work!

FACTS has a regulatory team available to answer labelling and other regulatory queries, as well as nutrition professionals to assist you in understanding consumer dietary requirements. Please contact us to find out how we can help.