Food and drinks have gotten sweeter over the past decade, and it’s a global problem

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’re consuming a lot of sugar in foods and drinks – the kind that’s added rather than naturally occurring sugar.

Consuming a lot of added sugar is bad news for health. It is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

Because of these health concerns, manufacturers have started using non-nutritive sweeteners to sweeten food as well. These sweeteners contain little or no kilojoules, and include 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 a lot over the past decade. This is especially true in middle-income countries, such as China and India, as well as in Asia and the Pacific, including Australia.

From lollipops to biscuits 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 foods and beverages from 2007 to 2019.

We found that the volumes of non-nutritive sweeteners in drinks per person are now 36 percent higher globally. Added sugars in packaged foods are 9 percent higher.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are mostly added to desserts. Ice cream and sweet biscuits are the fastest growing food categories for these sweeteners. The expansion in the use of added sugars and other sweeteners over the past decade means, in general, that our packaged food supply is getting sweeter.

Our analysis shows that the amount of added sugar used to sweeten drinks has increased globally. However, this can largely be explained by a 50 percent increase in middle-income countries, such as China and India. Use has declined in high-income countries, such as Australia and the United States.

Men are advised to consume less than nine teaspoons of sugar per day, while women should have less than six teaspoons. However, because sugar is added to many foods and drinks, more than half of Australians exceed recommendations, eating an average of 14 teaspoons a day.

The switch from using added sugar in sweeteners to sweetened beverages is more common in soda and bottled water. The World Health Organization is developing guidelines on the use of non-sugar sweeteners.

Rich and poor countries

There is a difference in the use of added sugar and sweeteners between rich and poor countries. The market for packaged food and beverages in high-income countries is becoming saturated. To continue growing, large food and beverage companies 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 rich countries.

Unexpected consequences of controlling

To reduce the health damage caused by eating large amounts of added sugar, many governments have worked to limit its use and consumption. Among these measures are sugar fees, educational campaigns, advertising restrictions, and labeling.

But such measures could encourage manufacturers to partially or completely replace sugar with non-nutritive sweeteners to avoid penalties or meet evolving demographic preferences.

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

Why is this a problem

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

Because they are sweet, eating non-nutritive sweeteners affects our tastes and encourages us to crave more sweet foods. This is of particular concern to children, who are still developing their lifelong favorite taste.

In addition, some non-nutritive sweeteners are considered environmental pollutants and are not effectively removed from wastewater.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are only found in ultra-processed foods. These foods are industrially made, contain ingredients you won’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 because they use up significant resources such as energy, water, packaging materials, and plastic waste.

Foods containing sweeteners can receive a “health halo” if they do not contain sugar, misleading the public and potentially displacing nutritious whole foods in the diet.

Focus on nutrition

When developing policy to improve public health nutrition, it is important to consider unintended consequences. Rather than focusing on specific nutrients, there is merit in advocating for a policy that takes into account the broader aspects of food, including cultural significance, level of processing, and environmental impacts. This policy should promote nutritious and minimally processed foods.

We need to monitor the increasing sweetness of foods and beverages more closely and the increasing use of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners. It will likely shape our future preferences, food choices, human and planetary health.

Sherry Russell, PhD candidate, Deakin University; Carly Grimes, Senior Lecturer in Population Nutrition, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence, Professor of Nutrition in Public Health, Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University; Philip Becker, Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Deakin University, and Rebecca Lindberg, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Deakin University.

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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