Humans have an evolutionary preference for sweetness. Sweet foods, such as fruit and honey, were an important source of energy for our ancestors.
However, in the modern world, sugary foods are readily available, very inexpensive, and widely advertised. Now, we are consuming too much sugar in food and drinks, the kind that is added instead of naturally occurring sugar.
Consuming too much added sugar is bad news for your health. It is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.
Due to these health concerns, manufacturers have started using non-nutritive sweeteners to sweeten food as well. These sweeteners contain little or no kilojoules and include both artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, and those that come from natural sources, such as stevia.
Our research, published today, shows that the amount of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and beverages has grown dramatically over the past decade. This is especially true in middle-income countries, such as China and India, as well as in Asia Pacific, including Australia.
From lollipops to cookies to drinks
Using worldwide market sales data, we looked at the amount of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners sold in packaged foods and beverages from 2007 to 2019.
We have found that per capita volumes of non-nutritive sweeteners in beverages are now 36% higher globally. Added sugars in packaged foods are 9% higher.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are most commonly added to confectionery. Sweet ice cream and cookies are the fastest growing food categories in terms of these sweeteners. The increasing use of added sugars and other sweeteners over the past decade means, on the whole, that our supply of packaged food is getting sweeter.
Our analysis shows that the amount of added sugar used to sweeten beverages has increased globally. However, this is largely explained by a 50% increase in middle-income countries, such as China and India. Usage has declined in high-income countries, such as Australia and the United States.
Men are recommended to consume less than nine teaspoons of sugar per day, while women should have less than six. However, because sugar is added to so many foods and drinks, over half of Australians exceed recommendations, eating 14 teaspoons a day on average.
Switching from using added sugar to sweeteners to sweeten drinks is more common in sodas and bottled water. The World Health Organization is developing guidelines on the use of unsweetened sweeteners.
Rich and poor countries
There is a difference in the use of added sugars and sweeteners between richer and poorer countries. The market for packaged foods and beverages in high-income countries has become saturated. To keep growing, large food and beverage companies are expanding into middle-income countries.
Our findings demonstrate a double standard in sweetening the food supply, with producers supplying less sweet and “healthier” products to richer countries.
Unexpected consequences of the check
To reduce the health damage resulting from a high intake of added sugar, many governments have acted to curb its use and consumption. Sugar taxes, education campaigns, advertising restrictions and labeling are among these measures.
But such actions can encourage producers to partially or completely replace sugar with non-nutritive sweeteners to avoid sanctions or satisfy the changing preferences of the population.
In our study, we found that regions with a higher number of policy actions to reduce sugar intake had a significant increase in non-nutritive sweeteners sold in beverages.
Because this is a problem
While the harms of consuming too much added sugar are well known, relying on non-nutritive sweeteners as a solution also comes with risks. Despite their lack of dietary energy, recent reviews suggest that consuming non-nutritive sweeteners may be linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease and can disrupt the gut microbiome.
And because they are sweet, ingesting non-nutritive sweeteners affects our palates and encourages us to crave sweeter foods. This is of particular concern to children, who are still developing their taste preferences throughout their lives.
Additionally, some non-nutritive sweeteners are considered environmental contaminants and are not effectively removed from wastewater.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are found only in ultra-processed foods. These foods are industrially produced, contain ingredients you wouldn’t find in a home cooking and are designed to be “hyper-palatable”. Eating more ultra-processed foods is linked to more heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and death.
Ultra-processed foods are also harmful to the environment because they use significant resources such as energy, water, packaging materials, and plastic waste.
Foods that contain sweeteners can receive a “health halo” if they do not contain sugar, misleading the public and potentially replacing nutritious whole foods in the diet.
Focus on nutrition
When formulating policies to improve public health nutrition, it is important to consider the unintended consequences. Rather than focusing on specific nutrients, a policy should be advocated that considers the broader aspects of food, including cultural importance, level of processing and environmental impact. Such a policy should promote nutritious and minimally processed foods.
We need to closely monitor the growing sweetness of food and drink and the increasing use of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners. It is likely to shape our future taste preferences, food choices, and human and planetary health.
Cherie Russell, PhD student, Deakin University; Carley Grimes, senior lecturer in population nutrition, University of Deakin; Mark Lawrence, professor of nutrition for public health, Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition, University of Deakin; Phillip Baker, Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Deakin University, and Rebecca Lindberg, postdoctoral researcher, Deakin University.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.