More than half of all Australians consume more than the maximum recommended daily intake of added sugars, according to a University of Sydney study, which experts have labelled "alarming".
The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found the worst habits among children and adolescents, revealing 76 per cent of children aged nine to 13 exceeded the guidelines for daily sugar intake.
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Based on the most recent 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey of more than 8000 participants, it found 55 per cent of participants consumed more added sugars than recommended.
Sugar-sweetened beverages were revealed as the greatest source of added sugar in the Australian diet, followed by sugar and sweet spreads, and then cakes, biscuits, pastries and batter-based products.
"For a long time we criticised food manufacturers for producing core foods like bread, yoghurt and breakfast cereal high in added sugar," said Dr Jimmy Louie, dietician and lead author.
"But this study shows that up to 80 to 90 per cent of our added sugar intake is coming from what should be occasional food or treats."
Dr Louie said the results enforced the need for public health programs to focus on "limiting foods like soft drinks and cakes, and encouraging people to swap them for better choices".
Last year the World Health Organisation revised its sugar guidelines, recommending that no more than 10 per cent of daily energy should be consumed from "free sugars", which include "added sugars", plus sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
According to the University of Sydney study, more than three-quarters (76.2 per cent) of those aged 9 to 13-years exceeded this limit, followed by:
- 14 to 18 years (75.9 per cent),
- 4 to 8 years (70.8 per cent),
- 19 to 30 years (61 per cent),
- 2 to 3 years (60.6 per cent),
- 31 to 50 years (51.7 per cent),
- 71+ years (46.4 per cent), and
- 51 to 70 years (41.9 per cent)
The findings of the study are the most recent since the now out-of-date results from the 1995 Australian National Nutrition Survey.
Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of Sydney Timothy Gill said, as a rule, the average adult should consume around 8700 kilojoules a day. Ten per cent of this total energy intake equates to around 12 teaspoons of sugar.
"Most 600 ml bottles of soft drink have around 18 teaspoons of sugar, while most cans contain around eight."
For those who enjoy jam on their toast, Professor Gill said it is worth remembering one or two teaspoons is equivalent to one teaspoon of sugar.
A 10-year-old girl with average weight of 33 kg, 138 cm, performing moderate exercise has energy requirements of 8500kJ, while for a 10-year-old boy with average weight of 32 kg, 139 cm, also performing moderate exercise the requirements are 9300kJ.
Professor Gill said that, despite some improvement in the diets of young children since 1995, results show that good habits fade as children move through primary school and then into high school.
"Most people would expect adolescents are probably the ones that are going to binge more off sugar-rich food, but what is surprising is the extent to which it's contributed to their overall calorie intake," he said.
"When 13-14 per cent of your daily total energy intake comes from sugar-rich foods, junk food...that [does not] provide any nutrition but does provide calories, that's where it starts to concern me."
Dr Gill said adolescents were vulnerable to risk from both a nutritional and social aspect.
"The teenage group are probably the most susceptible to poor nutrition in that they are in an important stage of development but also, they are clearly targets for markets as they attempt to secure life long consumers."
The findings come just days after a surprise announcement that the UK government would introduce a tax on sugary soft drinks from 2018.
The tax, which is being introduced to improve children's health, prompted celebrity chef and long-time sugar tax campaigner Jamie Oliver to call on Australia, to "pull your finger out".
However Federal Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash ruled out any chance of Australia following suit, when she said the government was not considering any form of the tax, following the UK announcement last week.
"I find it very disappointing...The widespread over consumption of sugar in our diet today is alarming. By far and away the biggest contributor is sugar-sweetened beverages," said Professor Gill.
"It is an issue so widespread and pressing for our children, everything should be on the table."