Modern Diet Myth No. 10: Australian teenagers eat 40 teaspoons of sugar a day

In the movie That Sugar Film Damon Gameau set about testing the effects of a high sugar diet on his healthy body. He increased his sugar intake to 40 teaspoons a day on the basis that this was ‘just slightly more than that of the average teenager worldwide’.

That’s an interesting claim but is it true?

Actually, it’s a strange measure to have chosen as it is almost impossible to verify. Most countries in the world simply don’t have good dietary data on teenagers, or adults for that matter. Let’s look at the available data and consider whether the claim is close to being right.

Any global average for sugar intake will be greatly influenced by typical intakes in populous countries such as China, India and Indonesia. Yet sugar intakes in these countries are very low – of the order of 20 grams per day or less, which equates to a miserly 4 teaspoons of sugar per day.

Image: source

Added sugars or total sugars?

The figure used in That Sugar Film may have been referring to total sugars i.e. the naturally occurring sugars in fruit and milk plus ‘added sugars’. I’m not sure why anyone would be concerned about naturally occurring sugars but let’s push on.

Intakes of total sugar in China, India and Indonesia would be more than twice that of added sugar, maybe 10-12 teaspoons a day. If we assume that teenagers in these countries consume more sugar than everyone else their intake could be about 12-16 teaspoons a day. That’s still a long way from 40.

American sweet-tooths

One populous country stands out from the rest when it comes to sugar intakes – the United States, which fortunately has good dietary data. Sugar intake in the US appears to have peaked in the early 2000s and has been falling since, largely driven by falling intakes of sugary soft drinks.

Currently, adolescents in the US consume about 18 teaspoons of added sugar each day or about 28 teaspoons of total sugars. The makers of That Sugar Film chose to use a level teaspoon (4.2g) as their chosen measure rather than the usual 5g teaspoon, which inflates the intake up to about 33 teaspoons a day – still well short of 40.

So the figure for sugar consumption chosen for That Sugar Film was nothing like ‘just slightly more than the average teenager worldwide’.

Sugar intakes of Australian teenagers

For the record, the average Australian aged 14-18 years consumes about 24 teaspoons of sugar a day, about half of which occurs naturally in fruit and milk.

Had the makers of That Sugar Film consulted with someone who actually knew what they were talking about they would have avoided misleading their audience. Then again, perhaps that was the idea.

Views on the health impact of sugar and carbohydrates more generally differ quite widely and there is plenty of room for debate, but it needs to be informed debate. Wild overstatements don’t help and diminish the credibility of those who make them.


17 thoughts on “Modern Diet Myth No. 10: Australian teenagers eat 40 teaspoons of sugar a day

  1. I help out at the canteen for my children’s sporting clubs. The teenage boys will usually ask for a bottle of water not a soft drink once the sports drinks have sold out, which leads me to think that it is more about the image of being seen to have one of these sports drinks rather than about consuming sugar. When we first starting playing club sport, the players were each given a can of soft drink straight after the game, now it is bottles of water. The message is getting through and I’m sure the dentists appreciate it.

  2. I thought this was odd but heard Damon speak at a Q&A. He was very thorough with his answer and said it took a long time to find the number but was based on overseas figures plus the recent Nutrition Survey here in Australia. He said the 40 did include natural sugars from fruit because the rules of his experiment were added or naturally occurring fructose, not just table sugar. He said that dairy only accounted for 2 teaspoons a day out of the 40 in the figures. I checked his website and he explains all this although he said the Nutritional Survey said there was under reporting? Not sure what that means. He seemed genuine and in my humble opinion wasn’t deliberatley misleading but may have just miscalculated. I think the number isn’t the point of the film anyway, what I got from it was just where sugar is hiding in foods I never imagined. It has assisted me and my wife to lower our consumption.

    • Hello Steve. In my view ‘That Sugar Film’ deliberately misrepresented the effects of the diet that Mr Gameau undertook. He says that he kept his calorie intake the same but claims that his weight increased by 3kg in 12 days. That’s simply impossible. To achieve such rapid increase one would have to grossly over-consume calories.
      He claims that he developed fatty liver disease in 18 days. Highly unlikely. But any increase in his liver fat over this short period was obviously due to him grossly over-consuming calories. It was due to the QUANTITY of his diet, not its QUALITY, which he implied.
      We all want Australians to eat better diets but I question the means to the end. Regards, Bill

      • Yes the first 12 days surprised me. Could it have had anything to do with water retention instead of actual adipose tissue? Also he went from no sugar in his diet to a huge amount, would this account for anything? My wife added up the first 12 days of his calories (she’s an accountant ;) ) and they did seem to match his previous diet (all the foods he ate are listed on his site).
        In regards to the fatty liver, I have seen recent science suggest this could have been possible from the high fructose consumption. He was overseen by a Prof Ken Sikaris who stated that Damon was on the virge of cirrhosis by the experiment’s conclusion. He seems well credentialed. Do you think he was also implicit in deliberately misrepresenting the effects? It does seem unlikely.
        Thanks for the reply

        • Hello Steve. I just don’t believe the weight increase in the first 12 days was due to anything other than the gross over-consumption of calories.
          With this movie there are strong parallels with ‘Supersize Me’ wherein Morgan Spurlock overate McDonald’s food and put on weight and then blamed it on the QUALITY of food rather than the QUANTITY. That appeared to be deliberate misrepresentation and it would appear that we have something similar here.
          When nutrition scientists conduct real studies and hold calories constant, weight doesn’t move, irrespective of the type of diet consumed. Regards, Bill

  3. As a school teacher of over 20 years I have no trouble believing that teenagers consume 40+ teaspoons of sugar. I remember being horrified when I started teaching that a few students started the day with Coca-Cola and a Mars bar. Things have got much worse since then and the consumption of energy drinks in particular amongst youth is also a significant problem.
    I applaud those parents and schools who are encouraging a healthy diet and having some success but fear that they are in the minority!

    • Jenny, I understand you are trained in science and yet you provide us with an anecdote. Can you support your beliefs with scientific data? Any scientific data? Regards, Bill

      • I am also a teacher Jenny, we had the children bring in the energy drinks that they have before and after school. We counted out the teaspoons in the class. One can of ‘V’ had 16 teaspoons of sugar! Many of the students reported having two of these a day. I have no problem with the number if they could get to 32 teaspoons that quickly. I don’t understand why you are arguing over the numbers anyway Bill. Isn’t the point to get our children eating better? This film is certainly having that effect on my class.

        • Yes, the point is to get our children to eat better. But demonising one particular nutrient has never done much good and detracts from healthy eating messages. A healthy diet does not depend on what you avoid – it depends on what you eat. Regards, Bill

  4. Bill, you have been in a position of influence from a nutritional point of view for how long?, and you have had what success?
    We don’t need scientific data to observe that people and children are becoming fatter and sicker.

    • Hello Teresa. What success have I had? I don’t often think about it but I guess playing an integral role in removing trans fats from Australian margarines would count as a success. Our trans fat intake is now one of the lowest in the developed world. And being part of a very small team that developed and introduced plant sterol spreads to Australia would be right up there too. That one innovation effectively doubled the potential of diet to lower blood cholesterol. I am also glad that I was finally able to convince colleagues and policy makers that the total fat content of the diet was of little relevance to health and that the focus should be on the type of fat.

      Personally, I haven’t been able to stop our population from becoming fatter. But as we deal with this problem it is important to consider the facts of the matter. The suggestion in That Sugar Film that we are all increasing our sugar intakes to high levels is just wrong. All lines of data available to us indicate that sugar intakes in Australia are falling. Focussing solely on sugar is repeating the mistake we made with fat. No single nutrient makes people fat. People put on weight when they consume more calories (from protein, fat, carbohydrate and alcohol) than their bodies require. That’s the message that we should be communicating. Regards, Bill

  5. Bill, you don’t like my anecdotes and you don’t like my science (I notice you have moderated/deleted my comment where I refer to scientific/nutritional studies)!! Fair enough! Truth is I am celebrating that Pete Evans (lunatic real food advocate) has such a loud voice (+1,000,000 likes on facebook) and that the Heart Foundation (preachers of low fat and moderation) is hardly making a dent (28,000 FB likes).

    Change is happening and people are starting to recover their health (as I have done) through ‘radical’ approaches like paleo and low carb/high fat.

    I’m happy to be a radical but want to know the underlying biochem and physiology. Personally I am turning my back on what to me is now non-sense like The Australian Dietary Guidelines, The Heart Foundation recommendations, The Cancer Council recommendations etc because I have found a better way. And I’m paving my yellow brick road with anecdotes (victories), cause (basic biochem and physiology) and lots of visits to the local farmers markets.

    I wish you well Bill!

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  6. Thanks for the great post. I agree there is no need for sensationalist “documentaries” to get people to eat better. I would have liked to see a balance of experts who are actually nutrition experts. Fear tactics only work for so long.

    The bottom line is, if everyone even remotely followed the Australian guidelines for healthy eating they wouldn’t be consuming as much sugar, trans fats or processed food.

    Instead fad diets and fear mongering prevail and we end up back were we started. The quitting sugar craze is a repeat of the low fat craze. People find ways around the restrictions.

    Keep up the good work!

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