Beverages: Consumption of sweetened drinks is said to have dropped.

The soft drink industry wants us to think we are drinking less sugar. It is promoting a study about to be published in the journal Nutrition and Dietetics that concludes in the 14 years to 2011 sales of sugar-sweetened beverages grew 5 per cent. But it says population growth makes that a drop in consumption per person. Sales of non-sugar sweetened drinks, including bottled water, almost doubled.

The study was funded by the Beverages Council. It follows an earlier study still cited on the council’s website that erroneously claimed sales of sugar-sweetened soft drinks fell 10 per cent in the 12 years to 2006.

The Australian Paradox paper, in the pay-for-publication journal Nutrients, is the subject of an inquiry by the University of Sydney under its Research Code of Conduct. It was quietly corrected the “inadvertent errors” last week.

The new paper – titled Quenching Australia’s Thirst – differs by explicitly acknowledging that drinking less sugar is ”consistent with public health”. It says when population growth is taken into account, sales of sugar-sweetened beverages per person fell 11 per cent. Sales of sugar-sweetened soft drinks fell 20 per cent per person. Partially replacing sugar-sweetened soft drinks in the diet were sugar-sweetened sports drinks, energy drinks and iced teas, mineral waters and mixers.

University of Sydney nutritionist Kieron Rooney said the paper looked like ”a case of smoke and mirrors”. It excludes fruit drinks, cordial and milk-based drinks.

”It asks readers to focus on a steeply declining line which is for sugar from carbonated beverages only. Great. So we are just getting less sugar from them. But we have made up for that by choosing other sugar drinks, which the graph does not plot,” he said.

Beverages Council chief executive Geoff Parker said the paper ”has academic and methodology rigour. I can’t see any weak points”.

One of the authors is Gina Levy, who became the national communications manager for Kellogg’s in Australia and New Zealand last month. She was not available for an interview. The other is Bill Shrapnel, a former dietitian-in charge at NSW Health who has a blog titled The Sceptical Nutritionist.

He has campaigned against a recommendation of the National Health and Medical Research Council for people to limit sugar and consults for companies including Goodman Fielder and Kellogg’s Australia. He said cordial was excluded because it was not a ready-to-drink product.

Both authors declare funding from the Australian Beverages Council in the paper; neither mention their association with Kellogg’s. Mr Shrapnel said he did no work for the beverages industry and therefore such disclosures were not relevant.

Craig Sinclair, chairman of Cancer Council Australia’s public health committee, said the association was relevant. ”Kellogg’s has long been in the firing line for our efforts around obesity,” he said.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton said the data used in the study was not available for other researchers to check. It was proprietary data collected by the market research firm ACNielsen for the Beverages Council.

Like Kieron Rooney, she said the exclusion of cordials and fruit drinks was “problematic” because they were also drinks that contained significant amounts of sugar.

While the study showed a decrease in sugary soft drinks of 149 million litres in the 15-year period, the sales of sugar-sweetened sports drinks, energy drinks, flavoured water, iced tea and mixers had increased by 229 million litres, she said.

The Quenching Australia’s Thirst paper is vital ammunition for the drinks industry’s peak body in its battle against health groups, such as the Cancer Council, Heart Foundation and Diabetes Australia, who are calling for the government to impose sales restrictions and encouraging consumers to switch to water and low-fat milk.

The research updates the 2007 study published by the editor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Professor Linda Tapsell of the University of Wollongong, with Gina Levy, in the same journal. It was also funded by the beverages council. She was also not available for an interview.

In June, the World Health Organisation’s Margaret Chan expressed concern about “Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol,” in slowing down their public health improvement efforts.

“They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt,” she said.

But Geoff Parker said if the industry didn’t fund research, it wouldn’t be conducted at all.

“If people want to criticise the results, they’re more than welcome to replicate the study,” Mr Parker said. “The research needs to stand the test of time, it needs to be analysed, scrutinised.”

with Peter Martin

  • Below is an infographic supplied by the Australian Beverages Council that is based on their research and notably excludes fruit juices, cordial and milk-based drinks.