Sugar in drinks is more dangerous than sugar in foods, according to a new review of international evidence.

Leading child health and obesity experts say this underlines the call for a tax on sugary drinks as a top-priority action to tackle Aotearoa New Zealand’s interconnected epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes and rotten teeth.

Worldwide, it has estimated that there are 184,000 premature deaths per year due to sugar-sweetened beverages, mostly from diabetes.

Dr Gerhard Sundborn, of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, says experts have debated whether sugar across the food system should be targeted generally, or sugar in drinks specifically.

A paper Dr Sundborn and colleagues have just published in Obesity, the official journal of The Obesity Society, reviewed the existing evidence from around the world. The researchers found that compared to sugar in solid food, sugar in drinks carries a greater risk of causing harmful metabolic changes that lead to chronic illnesses such as obesity and diabetes.

From 2002 to 2016, consumption of sugary drinks increased in New Zealand.

“This is due to its concentration, quantity and the speed with which sugar is metabolised when consumed in liquid form rather than solid,” says Dr Sundborn, a senior lecturer in the School of Population Health.

The review included eight studies that directly compared the metabolic effects of liquid and solid sugars.

“It is clear that sugar in drinks is more dangerous than sugar in foods, which means we should focus our efforts on sugary drinks initially,” says Dr Sundborn.

Dr Sundborn and his co-researchers, including Dr Simon Thornley also in the School of Population Health and Dr Bodo Lang, Head of the Marketing department in the University of Auckland Business School, say the finding provides more evidence for introducing a tax on sugary drinks to promote better health.

Says Dr Thornley: “We need to learn from what has happened in the UK, Mexico, Philadelphia, Berkley, Tonga and the Cook Islands and tax sugary drinks as they have done already.”

Another striking finding was that from 2002 to 2016, consumption of sugary drinks increased in New Zealand, compared to the United Kingdom and the United States, where the total sugary drink intake was steadily falling. Sales figures indicate New Zealanders are drinking less soft drinks but more juice, sports and energy drinks.

The average daily intake in New Zealand in 2016 was 175mL per person, compared to 275mL per person in the UK and 460mL per person in the US. 

A typical ‘power’ or energy drink contains 27 grams, or 6.5 teaspoons of sugar per 236mL of drink (roughly one cup), compared to 26 grams in the same volume of fizzy drinks and 24 grams each for sweetened teas and flavoured milk.

Dr Lang says, “Research has shown that some children are twice as likely to see advertising for junk food such as sugary drinks compared to advertising for healthy food. Our study suggests that the liquid sugar in such drinks is particularly dangerous because of its fast absorption.”

Dr Thornley: “We have one of the highest rates of child obesity and adult obesity in the world, and our Government and Minister of Health, Hon Dr David Clark, need to implement a tax on sugary drinks to address this issue.”

The study was funded by New Zealand’s Health Research Council. Researchers were from the University of Auckland, Auckland Regional Public Health Service, the University of Otago in New Zealand, and the University of Colorado in the US.

The article:

Obesity: Are Liquid Sugars Different from Solid Sugar in Ability to Cause Metabolic Syndrome? 


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