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Sugar and health is a topic that is surrounded by mixed messages in the New Zealand media. This summary of the current evidence sets out to remove some of the confusion around sugars in food, sugar intake, how sugars are processed in the body, and health effects from sugar consumption.

Consumption of sugar and sweetening of food has steadily increased over time, and so has disease related to diet. The increasing numbers of New Zealanders who are overweight and/or have diabetes has spurred interest in the role of sugars in diet and their effects on health. Many studies in New Zealand and internationally have provided important information about the links between sugar and disease. How sugar influences health and physical conditions that in turn can lead to chronic disease is increasingly being clarified, and many linkages have been established.

Evidence summary:

  • There is strong evidence linking sugar consumption with increased body weight as well as tooth decay.
  • Many studies also show an association between a high intake of added sugars and obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and gout – however research to date has not yet fully established the exact mechanisms behind these relationships.
  • No study has shown any negative effects from reducing sugar intake in the diet.
  • The current discussion on negative health effects from sugar is mainly concerned with sugars, such as sucrose, that have been added by food manufacturers.
  • Beverages which are high in sugar are nutrient and fibre poor, and can readily lead to overconsumption because they do not lead to a sense of fullness.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a maximum intake of sugars of less than 10% of total energy intake for adults and children, and less than 5% for better health, excluding sugars found in whole fruits, milk and vegetables.
  • Current food labelling does not allow consumers to assess how much sugar has been added to food and drinks, making it difficult to follow dietary recommendations and guidelines.
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