Sugar research 'gold standard' quality

Co-authors of a University of Otago study on the health effects of sugar Simonette Mallard (left) and  Lisa Te Morenga hope their study will lead to regulation of foods high in sugar. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Co-authors of a University of Otago study on the health effects of sugar Simonette Mallard (left) and Lisa Te Morenga hope their study will lead to regulation of foods high in sugar. Photo by Craig Baxter.

A University of Otago study into the health effects of sugar is set to be used as part of the basis for international guidelines on sugar intake.

The study, commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and published yesterday in the British Medical Journal, found cutting down on sugar had a small but significant effect on body weight.

It has already received a ringing endorsement from United States nutrition experts, who have backed its findings in an editorial also published today in the journal.

Study author Dr Te Morenga said the study was being used by the WHO as part of the evidential basis for its soon-to-be-released recommendations on sugar intake.

''The recommendations will be taken heed of by public health organisations, medical organisations and governments around the world.''

She hoped the study would help justify regulations around the marketing and availability of cheap sugary foods and drinks.

Co-authors Dr Te Morenga, Jim Mann and research assistant Simonette Mallard searched through the results and data from almost 8000 trials and 10,000 studies before aggregating the findings of 68 studies that looked directly at the effects of free sugars on body weight.

Dr Te Morenga said such an analysis was the ''gold standard'' when it came to evidence in nutritional research.

The study found reducing sugar intake had a small but significant effect on adult body weight - an average reduction of 0.80kg - while increasing sugar intake led to a corresponding 0.75kg increase in weight.

Prof Mann, who has been researching the health effects of sugar since the 1970s, said the study's methodology helped it to disentangle conflicting information about the role of sugar in human health.

''The story about sugar and teeth and dental care is fairly clear-cut, but with regard to other health issues, there has been a certain amount of controversy, to some extent fuelled by the industry,'' he said.

The study was one of the first to acknowledge sugar was not the cause of the obesity epidemic but was a significant contributor.

The journal's editorial backing the study argued for action at many levels - including education programmes, better food and drink options at schools and work sites, and policy changes like taxes on sugar-laden drinks.

Dr Te Morenga's said the message individuals could take away from the research was to be careful about the amount of sugar they consumed.

People should also be vigilant about being ''tricked'' into consuming foods and drinks high in sugar, such as sports drinks, snack bars and some cereals.

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

- Additional reporting by Matthew Backhouse of APNZ.

Health effects of sugar

The health effects of sugar in the diet go way beyond weight gain. Cane sugar wasn't consumed in large quantities until after the industrial revolution. Human beings have not co-evolved with a diet loaded with sugar. We are not well adapted to consuming large quanties of sugar. Just look at what a sugar-loaded western diet has done to the health of people who previously ate tradional diets (eg. Cook Islanders).

Regular high sugar consumption shifts the ecology of the gut to a less benign suite of organisms, which has far-reaching effects on immunity and auto immune disorders. Sugar consumption is a major cause of poor health. Most of us are better off with out it. Complex carbohydrates and fresh fruit are far better for you.