Eye Doctor and 2020 Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke has weighed into the debate over a major change to the health star system that will now see fruit juices lose their favourable nutritional rating, with some set to rank below Diet Coke.
Until now 100% fruit juices had a five-star rating, but last week The Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation voted to rate it according to sugar content, and not allow fruit juices special treatment.
The decision means some fruit juices with high sugar content will now score as low as 2.5 stars, which is below drinks like Diet Coke (3.5 stars), however juices with less sugar may score up to four stars, according to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH).
The decision has been criticised by Australian citrus growers and Federal Agriculture Minister Mr David Littleproud, but Muecke believes it’s appropriate that drinks like orange juice (OJ) are downgraded from their “lofty five-star status on Australia’s Health Star Rating System”.
“An average glass of OJ contains 21 grams of sugar, which is just below the 25g daily intake recommended by WHO for women and kids,” he told Insight.
“It’s all about raising awareness amongst the public of the dangers of excessive sugar consumption and at last our politicians are showing decisive action. When one third of Aussie kids are overweight or obese, giving them four to five teaspoons of sugar in a glass of OJ for brekkie each morning is just not good enough.”
Since receiving the nation’s top Australia Day honour last year, Muecke – a South Australian ophthalmologist – has used the platform to draw attention to the link between excessive sugar consumption, diabetes and preventable vision loss. He’s also advocated for a sugar tax, better food labelling and restrictions on advertising during children’s TV programs.
He earlier told SMH the issue with fruit juice is that it’s been extracted from whole fruit, so the fibre has been removed. Fibre slows down or reduces the absorption of the fructose element of the sugar within the fruit, about a third of which ends up being converted into fat.
Muecke said there were many other unhealthy products that also receive “an artificial seal of healthy approval on our flawed and voluntary health star rating system”, including many diet soft drinks, and “ultra-processed products” such as Sanitarium’s Up & Go and margarine.
“Hopefully, we’ll see them all lose stars in the near future,” he added.
Muecke’s views were supported by nutritionists who argued fruit juices should be rated according to their high levels of sugar and low levels of fibre, or how a drink compares to a piece of fruit.
On behalf of Australian citrus fruit growers, Citrus Australia CEO Mr Nathan Hancock said basing the health rating on sugar content alone was “flawed” and did not recognise the health benefits.
“Fruit juice currently contributes $736 million to the Australian economy. We fear any decline in sales under this false premise would also hasten the demise of the Australian orange juice industry, which has already seen a 30% decrease in the production base over the last 18 years,” he said.
“Reduced sales will also lead to significant job losses right across the supply chain, including juice factories and transport, and less Australian brands. It’s a high price to pay for a flawed concept focussed solely on sugar at the expense of nutritious elements like Vitamin C, Folate and Thiamin.”