Pupils at Waitaki Girls’ High School have been part of a “world first” study into fructose absorption this week.
The purpose of the study, being carried out by researchers affiliated with the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery at the University of Auckland, is to understand whether there are significant differences in fructose absorption in New Zealand children and how that relates to obesity.
When combined with glucose, fructose – or fruit sugar – makes sucrose, which Helen Webber, who is studying a masters degree in health science and nutrition at the university, said was essentially “table sugar”.
As fructose was metabolised by the liver, it accumulated around the organ, as well as the heart and pancreas, as fat.
She said the study was in its initial phase and at this point involved about 30 schools around the country.
There are 34 Waitaki Girls’ pupils aged between 13 and 15 taking part, and another 10 year 13 girls helping.
Fructose levels are measured by breathing into a hand-held breathalyser to test its absorption and that of other sugars.
Participants must not eat after dinner the night before the test, but can drink water before and during the test.
Ms Webber, a biology teacher at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School, said the test was ideally suited to the age group.
“It’s a really good experiment to do with schools .. they are learning about their own biology, how they absorb sugar, their digestive system and the biology of sugar and how it affects the body, which is really important.
“The World Health Organisation says you should have a maximum of 10 teaspoons of sugar a day.”
She said a can of fizzy drink had about 10 teaspoons of sugar, while a 1.5 litre bottle had about 39.
“Some kids have one of those on their way to school.”
If someone had a bowl of cereal for breakfast with yoghurt and a fruit drink, they could also reach the maximum daily sugar level.
“By the time kids have had some breakfast .. they have totally blown their added sugar allowance. It totally shocks them.”
Excessive sugar consumption over time can lead to conditions such as gout, caused by a build-up of uric acid, and diabetes.
She said in the future schools would be able to carry out similar breathalyser tests of their own.
It is planned to conduct the study over a three-year period, which will involve participants drinking escalating doses of fructose in the first year, fructose and glucose in the second year, and fructose, glucose and sucrose in year three.
Ms Webber said the study was a “world first” and had caught the attention of researchers at Cambridge University and the University of Colorado.
Waitaki Girls’ High School head of science Vicky Lilley was excited to have the study at the school, and hoped it would encourage pupils to consider a career in science.