Kathy Usic, CEO, Glycemic Index Foundation, told participants of the inaugural Healthy Ageing APAC Summit organised by FoodNavigator-Asia and NutraIngredients Asia, that Australia’s GI Symbol Programme could be further adopted internationally, particularly across the Asian region.
Currently, aside from Australia, the countries that have registered the GI symbol and are using it include New Zealand, Canada, the US, the EU, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and India. It is pending in China and Taiwan.
GI is a measure of the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose levels over a two-hour period, expressed on a scale of 1 to 100.
Carbohydrates measuring 55 or less are considered low GI and are digested and released slowly. They raise blood glucose levels and insulin levels more gradually and provide sustained energy.
Carbohydrates measuring 70 and above are considered high GI and break down quickly during digestion, and cause blood glucose levels to rise higher, longer.
Development of GI in Australia
In the 1980s, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller of the University of Sydney started testing foods for clinical trials.
“Fortunately, Australia adopted GI as a quality carbohydrate indicator rather than going the low-carb route,” said Usic. Using the catchphrase “Swap it, don’t stop it”, she said they took a complex scientific concept about GI and made it very simple for consumers.
Usic said it was important that they partnered with health promotion bodies, particularly Diabetes Australia, “because they recognised the importance and utility of GI being used for people in managing diabetes”.
In 2001, the GI Foundation, a not-for-profit health promotion charity, was established by the University of Sydney and Diabetes Australia New South Wales (NSW) - Australian Capital Territories (ACT). Its mission is to assist food suppliers to provide, and consumers to select, healthy and nutritious food using the GI system.
Soon after, in 2002, the Low-GI Symbol — a world-first font-of-pack labelling programme that helps consumers identify low-GI foods when shopping — was launched.
Usic explained that the Low-GI Symbol Programme comprises “three anchors”: Raising awareness and understanding of GI; helping consumers choose low-GI products, including using the symbol to identify low-GI products and encouraging the development of new low-GI products by food manufacturers; and investing in research, whether in terms of the local market or global collaborative research.
In 2007, the GI Foundation worked closely with industry regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to set a standard in the Food Standards Code. Furthermore, from around 2011 to 2013, testing for GI as well as labelling for low GI has been gazetted in the Food Standards Code.
Usic said they undertook a sub-analysis of the Australian Health Survey, a dietary survey of the population. When they did a comparison of the 1995 data to that of 2012, they found that the average dietary GI decreased by 5% from 56.5 to 53.9 in that period.
The decrease was primarily due to a reduction in added sugars (primarily sucrose in Australia), honey and syrups, sweetened beverages, juices and potatoes, and an increase in wholegrain cereals, cereal-based dishes, beans, peas and pulses.
Awareness of GI in 2001 was less than 28% but since 2011 it has been above 75%.
Australian-developed food in collaboration with the GI Foundation and the Low-GI Symbol Programme has increasingly been “translating to international markets”, said Usic.
One example is Coles’ low-GI Carisma Potatoes, a special variety of potatoes with a GI of 55, compared to an average potato with a GI of 77. It is 100% natural and has 20% less carbohydrate.
Sales have grown 20% year-on-year since its launch November 2010 launch, in a declining Australian potato market.
“That, we felt, really proved the ‘proof of the pudding’ was in low-GI, particularly the low-GI symbol,” said Usic.
She said, in relation to the popularity of the product in overseas markets, Diabetes Canada approached the GI Foundation to look into commercialising and launching the Low-GI Symbol in Canada.
Another successful Australian low-GI food product is SunRice Doongara Low-GI Rice, now available in Hong Kong and Singapore in 2kg white rice packs, under Kangaroo Brand. It is being targeted at other Asian countries.
“If you are a rice-loving country as we are, we need to make an impact on those products that people may be eating in their diets,” she said.
This could, for instance, aid Indonesia, which has been cutting down on rice due to concerns about carbohydrates and health.
Usic said, currently, the GI Foundation is continuing to work with international partners to further the cause.
“We need a global food and nutrition strategy to address the diabetes pandemic,” said Usic.
“Decreasing the average dietary GI and glycemic load can be part of that strategy. It is possible to identify and promote healthy low-GI foods to the general population.”