Why there is so much sugar in supposedly savoury foods

by Jennifer Bowden / 11 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Ultra processed food

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Industrially processed foods are full of sugar, sodium and saturated fat, and we eat a lot of them.

Ultra-processed, nutritionally lacklustre foods are the cornerstone of our national diet. Designed to be durable, accessible and convenient, most of these ready-to-eat meals, sadly, have few health benefits.

And New Zealand is not alone; the majority of foods eaten in developed countries are processed or pre-prepared by the food industry. A three-year, world-first study by the University of Auckland analysed more than 13,000 packaged foods sold here and found that 83% were classified as ultra-processed. That is, they were industrially processed from multiple food-derived ingredients and additives.

“People choose their diets from the food environments around them, and when these are dominated by unhealthy foods and drinks it’s no surprise our overall diets are unhealthy and our obesity rates are so high,” says study leader Boyd Swinburn.

Every time we eat an industrially processed food ingredient or meal we’re likely to be increasing our sugar, sodium and saturated-fat intake.

When it comes to pizza, even if you buy a ready-made pizza base and add your own toppings, you’ve already added about 1.5 tsp of sugar and 560mg of sodium to your diet with one slice of the pizza base.

Putting that into perspective, our body requires between just 460-920mg of sodium a day to function normally. The absolute upper recommended sodium intake is 2300mg. That one slice of pizza base would account for nearly a quarter of your daily sodium limit and you haven’t even added toppings to your pizza, or had a second slice.

Meanwhile, our nation’s beloved tomato sauce has 1 tsp of sugar and 100mg of sodium per tablespoon. Although sugar is required to balance out the sourness of the vinegar, many tomato sauce brands on the market are unpleasantly sweet.

The World Health Organisation recommends we limit intake of “free sugars”, such as those added to pizza bases and tomato sauce, to less than 10% of our total energy intake, or, better still, 5% – that’s about 25g or 6 tsp of added sugar a day.

The simple fact is that humans gravitate towards the most convenient and visible foods. We’re motivated to pick high-energy foods when we’re hungry.

For many New Zealanders, material wealth allows them to focus on their long-term health by buying whole foods and preparing meals at home.However, the 2008-09 National Nutrition Survey found 14% of households reported running out of food often or sometimes due to lack of money, and 30.4% said lack of money sometimes limits the variety of foods they buy.

There are 13.7 fast-food and takeaway outlets per 10,000 people in the most deprived areas of New Zealand and just 3.7 in the least deprived. There are 12.7 dairies per 10,000 people in the most deprived areas and 4.5 in the least.

If we want our nation to be healthy, we need to ensure everyone, including those in the most deprived areas, has access to affordable, nutritious food.

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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