SDF Talk: Let's talk about sugar

Cover image by Louri Goussev

Almost two thirds of Australian adults and almost one quarter of Victorian children between the ages of 2-17 are overweight or obese. A new case of diabetes is diagnosed every five minutes in our country. Close to half of our children have tooth decay in their adult teeth. These children make up the first generation predicted to die younger than their parents.

There are many reasons why our battle with chronic disease is complex, but evidence consistently points to one factor: sugar.

The unprecedented impact of sugar consumption on the health of our communities provided the inspiration for the second event in our SDF Talks series. It was an evening full of thought-provoking questions from the audience, personal stories from the panelists and eye-opening details about our relationship with sugar as a nation.

Moderator, Natalie Molino with the panel, Matthew Hopcraft, Jess Gardner and Tania Sincock

Moderator, Natalie Molino with the panel, Matthew Hopcraft, Jess Gardner and Tania Sincock


Tania Sincock, CEO of SugarByHalf was joined by fellow panelist Matthew Hopcraft, CEO of the Australian Dental Association Victorian Branch and co-founder of SugarFree Smiles, alongside Youth Food Movement Melbourne Chapter co-leader, Jess Gardner.

Moderated by our Executive Director, Natalie Molino, the trio perfectly complemented one another. Their unique perspectives fueled conversation that spanned the individual, the community, the nation and the globe.

Matt began with a personal account of his experience as a practicing dentist, witnessing first-hand the impact that sugar has on tooth decay, particularly in kids as young as three years old. “By the age of 12, 40% of children have tooth decay in their adult teeth” stated Matt. “However, tooth decay is one of the easiest diseases to prevent”. One of his main messages was clear: we need a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB).

Making this happen will require smart advocacy. Matt discussed some of the barriers to widespread public support, citing confusion about the influence of a SSB tax on Australian farmers as one of the main misconceptions. “In reality, 85% of sugar produced in Queensland is exported, a tax on SSBs would only have a small impact - around 1% - on sugar production. A transition from sugar crops to other viable crops will also need be part of this shift towards a reduced consumption of sugary drinks”.

A tax on sugary drinks places the onus on big corporations, reminding us that we need a whole-systems approach to sugar consumption, according to Tania. While individuals do have the autonomy around their own diet, we live in a food environment that makes it all too easy to consume hazardous amounts of sugar. Rather than blaming individuals and parents, Matt proposed that corporations need to share some of the responsibility, “The proportion of added sugars in our processed food products has increased since last century, including the sugar content of McDonald’s burgers and other savoury foods”.

Kids aren’t going up to their parents saying “Mum, I want 20 teaspoons of sugar for breakfast”. They are not making that choice. Corporations are absolutely making that choice for us.
— Matthew Hopcraft

Alongside a tax on sugary drinks, Matt suggested that greater availability of free drinking water will help individuals choose a sugar-free option, and will also reduce the number of plastic bottles that are consumed and wasted.

This is an important concept. By advocating for people to eat fresh foods and choose water over soft drinks, we’re also advocating for people to consume less packaged products.

Many of the solutions to obesity and chronic disease are the same solutions we see for reduction of environmental impact. We’re not going to get big wins without everyone coming together and seeing how our behaviours influence all areas of our lives and our communities.
— Tania Sincock

After deep discussions about corporate responsibility, advocacy and policy change, Jess suggested ways in which individuals can foster the self-determination and confidence to opt for home-cooked food over highly processed and sugary products.

She reminded us that cooking can be achievable for everyone and doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple, delicious and healthy meals can be created with minimal cooking skills, but a revival of home economics in schools could also be part of the solution.

We need to fall back in love with home cooked food.
— Jess Gardner

At the mention of schools, Tania added “I would love to see media literacy incorporated into the school curriculum in response to increasing digital advertising to kids across multiple platforms”.

Children need to learn the skills to identify marketing tactics; to know when they are being had by the big corporations.
— Tania Sincock

Above all, the three panelists urged that a multifaceted campaign is needed to reshape our food environment so that it is easier for individuals to select healthy options.

Our next ‘SDF Talks’ event will be held in December at our space in Northcote. Sign up here to be updated on the details.