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‘Don’t trust them. Just regulate them’

The Minister of Health, David Clark, told Newsroom he expects the food and beverage industry to voluntarily reduce the amount of sugar in their products, but anti-sugary drinks campaigner Dr Gerhard Sundborn doubts the industry will go far enough. Thomas Coughlan reports.

With sugar taxes off the table for now, it looks like the Government will be relying on the good intentions of the food and beverage industry to reduce the sugar content of its products. Speaking to Newsroom on the release of a Ministry of Health-commissioned study that recommended against a sugar tax, the Minister of Health David Clark said the Government would first try to get the industry to self-regulate

"There is a clear expectation that we need to have a credible path to reduce sugar in food," Clark said. 

However, should the industry fail to reduce sugar content to a sufficient level, Clark said he would not be afraid to step in. 

"If that path isn't credible then we're also not afraid to regulate," he said. 

Gerhard Sundborn, founder of anti-sugar drinks campaign group FIZZ, says he has little faith the industry will reduce sugar content to healthy levels. 

"Clearly if the industry was going to make meaningful progress about reducing sugar in their products it would have happened already," Sundborn said. 

"Our new Government giving industry the chance to self-regulate is a total waste of time. This really needs leadership," he said. "They were a lion in opposition but a lamb in Government."

The problem, said Sundborn, is that the New Zealand palate is so used to products with added sugar that any reduction could impact the company's bottom line.

"Industry has cottoned on to how addictive sugar is and that's why they're chucking it into their products - it makes people want to buy more," he said.

"There's an Italian brand of baked beans that uses half, or less than half, of the sugar that Watties baked beans use, but I gave them to my family and my brother tasted them and said they were "yuck". It wasn't the beans that were yuck it was the absence of sugar.

"They're a business and their bottom line is what drives them at the end of the day."

Sundborn pointed to a report from Credit Suisse, which collates a number of medical studies that show some evidence of sugar having qualities similar to other addictive substances. 

Sundborn also disputed the conclusion of the NZIER report saying that a tax on sugar, particularly on sugary drinks would be ineffective. 

Detractors of sugar taxes often cite evidence that when one form of sugar becomes expensive, people will often try to find it somewhere else or buy the product in a different, cheaper size. For example, people will substitute a daily can of soft drink for the purchase of a large bottle once a week.

Sundborn said targeting sugary drinks was an important first step, even if people move on to getting sugar in other forms. He said sweet drinks were worse than sweetened food because they did not sate the appetite like food does, encouraging people to potentially consume twice as much sugar as they search for a fix from both a sweet drink and sweet food. 

"When you consume sugar in liquid form, your body doesn't adjust the amount of food and energy that you consume in other foods," he said. 

Two American studies, the first from Richard Mattes and Wayne Campbell, the second from Julie E. Flood-Obbagy and Barbara J. Rolls, appear to support this conclusion. 

Sundborn said New Zealand research showed 24 percent of all sugars consumed by children came in the form of sugary drinks. A tax to reduce consumption in that specific form would be a victory, he

He also said evidence from the UK, which will introduce a sugar tax this year, has shown that sugar taxes work not just to lower people's consumption of sugary drinks, but as an incentive to encourage beverage manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their drinks to avoid the tax. 

A recent study led by University of Waikato researcher Lynne Chepulis found that New Zealand leads the world in the amount of sugary drinks on the shelves - and in the number of drinks we add sugar to.

Fifty-two percent of drinks purchased in New Zealand contained added sugar, versus 42.2 percent in Australia, 42.8 percent in Canada and just nine percent in the UK, which Chepulis cited as evidence the tax was working. 

In New Zealand, drinks manufacturers even added sugar to fruit juices, which already contain natural sugar. 

In a response to the NZIER report and Clark's comments to Newsroom, Food and Grocery Council Chief Katherine Rich said the report was "great news".

"This is great news, because now everyone can concentrate on developing methods that work best to reduce the rate of obesity - like education - rather than wasting time talking about things that don't work, like a tax," Rich said.

She said demand from consumers for low-sugar products means there were now more low- or no-sugar products on the market now than at any time before. 

Sundborn, however, is doubtful the industry will move far or fast enough without government intervention.

"They are bringing out more sugar-free and low-sugar products, but to what degree they promote those products as their flagship products is questionable, and that's where good policy and regulations can make a the transition faster," he said.

"They don't want to push a sugar-free product over a sugary one if it could impact upon sales. They'll play it quite carefully and conservatively unless they're pushed and what would really push them is a tax on sugary drinks".

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