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‘Sugar in Schools’ study launched in BOP

12 September 2017

The Maurice Wilkins Centre’s nationwide ‘Sugar in Schools’ study was recently rolled out in Bay of Plenty, in collaboration with teachers at Opotiki College. Launched over two days on 31 July and 1 August, the event featured free public talks and workshops aimed at changing attitudes within the community and boosting the interest and achievement of school students in science.

The event at Opotiki College was well attended and details of the study gained widespread coverage in regional and mainstream news media, including an article by science reporter Jamie Morton in the New Zealand Herald.

About the ‘Sugar in Schools’ study

The aim of the ‘Sugar in Schools Study’ is to enroll thousands of kids across the country, especially those from schools in regional areas such as Northland, Bay of Plenty and the East Coast with high proportions of Maori and Pasifika.

School children in Opotiki are the first to take part in the ground-breaking study, testing themselves with a breathalyzer to record the level of hydrogen in their breath as this is a measure of fructose absorption rate. Individuals who absorb fructose at higher rate than others are less likely to shed calories and therefore be at a higher risk of weight gain or diabetes.

“The study will look at how fructose, which is the most dangerous sugar in our diet, affects different people in different ways,” says Professor Peter Shepherd, deputy director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre. “We hit upon this idea of the fructose breath test. It’s relatively easy to perform and administer and it’s safe.”

The plan is to begin testing Year 9 students, with Year 13 students assisting. After the first year pilot study, an appropriate format will then be devised to follow up these students over subsequent years. 

School science teachers are the key to success

New Zealand school science teachers will also play a major role in facilitating the study, according to Professor Shepherd. “Teachers are with kids every day,” he says. “Biology teachers have a massive job to do. They’re expected to cover everything from evolution to microbes to human health, across this huge spectrum of knowledge.”

This programme is one way of providing a coordinated nationwide system for upskilling New Zealand school teachers with the latest knowledge in metabolic diseases, Professor Shepherd added.

“To help achieve this the Maurice Wilkins Centre runs professional development workshops for teachers across the country every year and the idea is to especially focus on regional centres. This Opotiki event was a great opportunity to get to the eastern Bay of Plenty. It’s really important to build those links and break down those barriers.”

Involvement of Maori and local communities paramount

The study’s launch at Opotiki College was also notable as being the first event of its kind organized through the Te Wheke collaborative programme – an ongoing collaboration between the various partners and the local community for the benefit of the Opotiki region.

Northland schools next in line

The next step in the ‘Sugar in Schools’ study is to collaborate with communities in other parts of the country to bring it to schools located furtherest away from the main population centres.

“We have reached out to Opotiki and are now looking at implementing it in Northland,” says Professor Shepherd. “The idea is to do it through schools, including Te Kura Kaupapa schools in a way that fits with their ethos and to see how we can translate it into that setting.”