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Understanding and sharing the science of sugar


Pacific students in Wellington participate in first ever ‘Sugar in Schools’ project to understand and share the science of sugar

For the first time ever in Wellington, research among high school age Pacific students will be done to understand absorption rates of sugar. The research is being done in Porirua and surrounding areas through a partnership between the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, a national Centre of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland, and Pacific Health Plus, a primary health organisation in Cannons Creek.

Results of the research will help young, Pacific people better understand their own biology to help avoid obesity and prevent diseases linked to this, such as diabetes.

“We target research at other diseases, we provide education and a pathway for management for other diseases - but we do not do this for obesity,” says Dr Ofa Dewes, Principal Investigator and Associate Investigator at the Maurice Wilkins Centre. “For the first time in the world, this research will help us prove, understand and communicate the idea that predisposed genetic responses to how we absorb sugar are highly likely the main cause of obesity, especially in Māori and Pacific peoples.”

“We want young people who are most affected by this genetic predisposition to understand how and why this is the case, so that they can share information and knowledge with their communities and ultimately ‘own’ the response,” says John Fiso, chair of Pacific Health Plus.

“It is important for our Pacific communities to know that there are ways to collect, understand, analyse and tell the story of their own data,” says Mr Fiso. “This is to do with them, this is their data and can help solve problems unique to them.”

Dr Dewes is hoping that between 500 to 1000 students in Wellington can take part in the study. Students from Porirua College, Mana College, Bishop Viard College have so far participated.

Emerson Toomaga, a university student of Pacific and Māori descent, who is studying population health, policy and service delivery, has been leading the charge to recruit schools for the research.

“First we approach the PE teachers and they co-ordinate with the schools, there has been a really positive response,” says Emerson. “Students, and sometimes parents, need to sign a consent form following an information session, but the testing, which happens first thing in the morning, is really straightforward - except that students are not allowed to eat the night before! We do give the students filled rolls, fruit and water after their session though!”

The test is done with a machine similar to a breathalyser. Students first do a baseline test, then they drink a measurement of liquid fructose and three more readings are taken over one and a half hours. Other measurements are also taken, such as weight, height and waist circumference. Students get to see their own measurements and can see how the readings change each time they are tested on the breathalyzer.

Dr Dewes explains that all humans absorb glucose in the same way, but fructose, which is what makes sugar taste sweet is absorbed differently in each person. If fructose is more easily and quickly absorbed, that is when it can be risky for that individual.

“It is great to see how engaged the students get in the process and the discussion that happens when they see the readings,” says Emerson.

Dr Dewes is hopeful that participating in a science research project will promote student interest in science and research.

“The hope is that this process will trigger curiosity in research collection, data and science,” says Ofa. “We need more young people in the sciences, especially Pacific students and females. Students who take part in Sugar in Schools will hopefully share what happened with their families and communities too.”

“We try and make the process friendly, it is a safe environment for students to witness and participate in a research project, it is at school in familiar surroundings with their mates and teachers around. It is not an alien, medical, intrusive or intimidating environment.”

“Once we have all of the analysis we will share this with participants, and they can be part of sharing that information with their schools and families. They can run information evenings or share in assembly and present the findings themselves.”

“We do not want this to end when our research ends,” says Dr Dewes. “We would like the students to find other ways to research the connections between sugar and health, to continue questioning the relationship between science, diet and genetics.”

“We have a long way to go before health problems linked to obesity are solved, but this is a step in that process and is about young people better understanding their bodies, having ownership of the data which explains their biology and finding ways to use that data to promote healthy living and prevent health problems from pervading their communities.”

Further information on the Pacific Health Plus and Maurice Wilkins Centre research partnership is below.

The Maurice Wilkins Centre brings together over 400 of New Zealand’s top scientists, associate investigators, mid-career affiliates and clinicians from all over the country.

Pacific Health Plus is a primary healthcare service in Cannons Creek, Porirua, and is the only Pacific owned and governed healthcare service for Pacific people in the Wellington region. It services over 2000 people in the Cannons Creek community.


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