May 25, 2024

Food and drinks are getting sweeter

Focus on nutrition

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, sweetened foods are readily available, very cheap, and widely advertised. Now, we are consuming too much sugar in foods and beverages, the kind that is added instead of the sugar that occurs naturally. 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 also began using non-nutritive sweeteners to sweeten foods. These sweeteners contain few or no kilojoules and include both artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, and those that come from natural sources, such as stevia.

Due to these health concerns, manufacturers also began using non-nutritive sweeteners to sweeten foods. These sweeteners contain few 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 the amount of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and beverages has grown dramatically in the last decade. This is especially true in middle-income countries such as China and India, as well as in Asia Pacific, including Australia.

From popsicles to cookies and drinks

Using market sales data from around the world, we analyzed the amount of sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners sold in packaged foods and beverages from 2007 to 2019.

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We found that per person 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. 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 our packaged food supply is getting sweeter overall.

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.

It is recommended that men consume less than nine teaspoons of sugar per day, while women should consume less than six. However, because sugar is added to so many foods and drinks, more than half of Australians exceed the recommendations, eating an average of 14 teaspoons a day.

The switch from using added sugar to sweeteners to sweeten beverages is most common in carbonated soft drinks and bottled water. The World Health Organization is developing guidelines on the use of sugar-free sweeteners.

rich and poor countries

There is a difference in the use of added sugars and sweeteners between the richest and poorest countries. The market for packaged food and beverages in high-income countries has become saturated. To keep growing, large food and beverage corporations are expanding into middle-income countries.

Our findings demonstrate a double standard in sweetening the food supply, with manufacturers offering less sweet and “healthier” products in wealthier countries.

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Unexpected consequences of control

To reduce the health damage from high intakes of added sugars, many governments have acted to curb their use and consumption. Sugar levies, education campaigns, advertising restrictions and labeling are among these measures.

But such actions may encourage manufacturers to partially or completely substitute sugar with non-nutritive sweeteners to avoid penalties or meet changing population preferences.

In our study, we found that regions with a higher number of policy actions to reduce sugar consumption had a significant increase in non-nutritive sweeteners sold in beverages.

Why is this a problem

While the harms of consuming too much added sugar are well known, relying on non-nutritive sweeteners as a solution also carries risks. Despite their lack of energy diet , recent reviews suggest that consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners may be linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and may alter the gut microbiome.

And since they are sweet, eating non-nutritive sweeteners influences our taste buds and encourages us to want more sweet foods. This is of particular concern for children, who are still developing taste preferences for life. Additionally, certain non-nutritive sweeteners are considered environmental contaminants and are not effectively removed from wastewater.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are only found in ultra-processed foods. These foods are industrially made, they contain ingredients that you would not find in a home. kitchen , 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 bad for the environment because they use up important resources like energy, water, packaging materials, and plastic waste.

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Foods that contain sweeteners can be given a “health halo” if they are sugar-free, misleading the public and potentially displacing nutritious, whole foods in the diet.

Focus on nutrition

When formulating policies to improve public health nutrition, it is important to consider unintended consequences. Rather than focus on specific nutrients, it is worth advocating for policy that considers the broader aspects of food, including cultural importance, level of processing, and environmental impacts. Such a policy should promote nutritious foods, minimally processed foods .

We need to closely monitor the increasing sweetness of foods and beverages 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.


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