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  • As part of the growing academic groundswell against free sugars, on 19–20 February 2014, an international conference in Auckland – Sugary Drink Free Pacific by 2030? – considered the mounting evidence against sugar, particularly fructose, and its role in obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart disease and fatty liver. The conference attendees discussed the possibility of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and other strategies such as publicity campaigns to make people more aware of their sugar consumption.

    Sugar is a toxin

    Ahead of the conference, the Science Media Centre interviewed several nutritional experts. Professor Tony Merriman, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Otago University’s School of Medical Sciences, made the comment that, “Sugar, when ingested in the dissolved form as present in sugary drinks does fit the definition of a toxin, i.e. a poisonous substance – a substance that causes illness and death. The more sugary drinks ingested the stronger the detrimental effects.”

    Professor Boyd Swinburn, School of Population Health, University of Auckland said, “The evidence is strengthening that increased energy intake is the main driver for the obesity epidemic. Within that, it is the increase in ultra-processed food as a greater proportion of the diet, which is causing the problem. Within that, there are multiple factors – high palatability, cheap price, heavy marketing, ubiquitous availability, high convenience, long shelf life, energy density – which are behind the increase in intake of ultra processed foods. Within that, added sugar contributes to several components, e.g. palatability, cheapness, shelf life.

    “Sugar-sweetened beverages deserve special focus because they are a very high source of empty calories, especially for kids, they are amenable to policy actions, they contribute nothing to nutrition, and there are good alternatives – tap water."

    Comparisons with Big Tobacco

    Professor Swinburn continued, “There are strong analogies with tobacco. The corporate behaviours of Big Tobacco and Big Food/Big Soda are identical when faced with a conflict between public good and profits. The public health responses have many parallels – social marketing, regulation, taxation, leadership, clinical treatments, etc.

    “The products themselves have some comparability – both tobacco and junk food give people pleasure, are not essential for life, and cause long and short term harm. There have been some parallels between nicotine’s addictive properties and some ‘addiction-like’ patterns seen in some people with certain foods but this is less strong.”

    Overfed but undernourished

    Professor Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition at AUT University, said that sugar is not evil, “but an excess of sugar is, i.e. it is the dose that counts and defines a toxin.

    “It is not so much about what we are consuming – it is about what we are not eating. As a population we are overfed but undernourished. Eating and drinking is necessary for life – addictive by design – we need to consume every day and we tend to choose the same foods, over-consume the pleasant food and be creatures of habit. One size does not fit all.

    “Some particular foods are over consumed by some people and do not belong in a healthy diet. If something should be removed from the diet, a clear target and example is sugary drinks. There is no need for sugar to be added to beverages and particularly for children there are huge problems with sweet drinks and tooth decay."

    “The bottom line is: Water is the best drink.”

    As a New Scientist article – Sugar on trial: What you really need to know – concluded, “however much you might want it, you really don’t need it”.

    Activity idea

    Sugar, diet and health is a socio-scientific issue that fits within the Nature of Science Participating and Contributing strand. Find more examples of socio-scientific issues/resources and how to include them into a science programme.

    Increased sugar intake is one of many factors that contribute to obesity. In Obesity risk factors activity students participate in a simulation demonstrating that both genetic make-up and environmental factors influence an individual’s likelihood of becoming obese.

    Related content

    Read the related article Sugar on trial.


    O’Callaghan, T. (2014). Sugar on trial: What you really need to know. New Scientist. Iss. 2954. (Published 1 February 2014).

    Useful link

    In 2022 the New Zealand Health Star Rating system was upgraded, making it tougher on sugar and salt – read the press announcement on the MPI website.

      Published 10 March 2014 Referencing Hub articles
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