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Humans have an evolutionary preference for sweets. Sweet foods, such as fruits and honey, were an important source of energy for our ancestors.
However, in the modern world, sweet foods are readily available, very cheap, and widely advertised. Now we are consuming too much sugar in food and drink – the type that is added rather than 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 have also started using non-nutritive sweeteners to sweeten foods. These sweeteners contain little to no kilojoules and include both artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, and those that come from natural sources, like stevia.
Our research, published today, shows that the amount of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and beverages has increased significantly over the past decade. This is especially true in middle-income countries, such as China and India, as well as in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia.
From lollipops to cookies to drinks
Using market sales data from around the world, we looked at the amount of added sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners sold in packaged food and beverages from 2007 to 2019.
We 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 often added to confectionery. Ice cream and sweet cookies are the fastest growing food categories in terms of sweeteners. The increasing use of added sugars and other sweeteners over the past decade means that, overall, our packaged food supply is getting sweeter.
Our analysis shows that the amount of added sugar used to sweeten beverages has increased globally. However, this is largely due to a 50% increase in middle-income countries, such as China and India. Use has declined in high-income countries, such as Australia and the United States.
Ice cream is one of the foods whose sweetness increases the fastest. Shutterstock
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, more than half of Australians exceed the recommendations, eating an average of 14 teaspoons a day.
The shift from using added sugar to sweeteners to sweeten beverages is most common in soft drinks and bottled water. The World Health Organization develops guidelines on the use of sugar-free sweeteners.
Beverages labeled “sugar-free” may seem healthier, even though they are not. Shutterstock
Read more: Sugar detox? Cut carbs? A doctor explains why you should keep fruit on the menu
Rich and poor countries
There is a difference in the use of added sugars and sweeteners between rich and poor countries. The packaged food and beverage market in high-income countries has become saturated. To continue their growth, major food and beverage companies are expanding into middle-income countries.
Our results demonstrate a double standard in the sweetening of the food supply, with manufacturers supplying less sweet and “healthier” products in wealthier countries.
Added sugar is bad, but the rules for removing it can have unintended consequences. Unsplash/Myriam Zilles , CC BY
Read more: How much longer do we have to wait for Australia to introduce a tax on sugary drinks?
Unintended consequences of control
To reduce the harmful health effects of high intakes of added sugar, many governments have taken steps to limit their use and consumption. Sugar taxes, education campaigns, advertising restrictions and labeling are among these measures.
But such actions may encourage manufacturers to partially or completely replace sugar with non-nutritive sweeteners to avoid penalties or respond to changing public preferences.
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.
Why is it a problem
While the harms of consuming too much added sugar are well known, resorting to non-nutritive sweeteners as a solution also carries risks. Despite their lack of dietary energy, recent studies suggest that consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners may be linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease and may disrupt the gut microbiome.
And because they are sweet, ingesting non-nutritive sweeteners influences our palate and encourages us to crave more sweet foods. This is of particular concern for children, who are still developing 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 only found in ultra-processed foods. These foods are industrially produced, contain ingredients you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen, and are designed to be “super-tasty.” 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 as they use up valuable resources such as energy, water, packaging materials and plastic waste.
Foods that contain sweeteners can receive a “health halo” if they are sugar-free, misleading the public and potentially replacing nutritious whole foods in the diet.
Non-nutritive sweeteners can include those from artificial and natural sources. Shutterstock
Read more: Poorer Americans drink far more sugary drinks than wealthier ones — which is why soft drink taxes could help reduce gaping health inequalities
Focus on food
When developing policies to improve public health nutrition, it is important to consider unintended consequences. Rather than focusing on specific nutrients, it is useful to advocate for policy that considers broader aspects of food, including cultural significance, level of processing and environmental impacts. Such a policy should promote nutritious minimally processed foods.
We need to keep a close eye on 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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