Food and drinks have become sweetened in recent decades, and this is a global problem

Humans have an evolutionary preference for sweetness. Sweet foods like fruit and honey were an important source of energy for our ancestors.

However, in today’s world, sweets are readily available, very cheap and widely advertised. We now consume too much sugar in foods and drinks – the added kind instead of naturally occurring sugar.

Eating too much added sugar is bad news for your health. It is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

Because of these health concerns, manufacturers have started using non-nutritive sweeteners to sweeten foods. These sweeteners contain little or no kilojoules and include both artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and those from natural sources such as stevia.

Our research, published today, shows that the amount of added sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and drinks 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 lollies to cookies to drinks

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

We found that per capita consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners in beverages is now 36 percent higher worldwide. Added sugar in packaged foods is 9 percent higher.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are often added to confectionery. Ice cream and cookies are the fastest growing food categories for these sweets. With the rise in the use of added sugars and other sweeteners over the last decade, our packaged food supply in general is getting sweeter.

Our analysis shows that the amount of sugar used to sweeten beverages has increased globally. But this is mainly due to the 50 percent growth in middle-income countries like China and India. Use 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, with sugar added to many foods and drinks, more than half of Australians exceed the recommendations by eating an average of 14 teaspoons a day.

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

Rich and poor countries

There is a difference between rich and poor countries in the use of added sugars and sweeteners. In high-income countries, the packaged food and beverage market is saturated. To keep growing, large food and beverage corporations are expanding into middle-income countries.

Our findings suggest a double standard in sweetening the food supply, with manufacturers offering less sweet, “healthier” foods in richer countries.

Unintended consequences of surveillance

To reduce the health effects of high sugar consumption, many governments have taken action to limit their use and consumption. Sugar levies, education campaigns, advertising restrictions and labeling are among these measures.

But such actions encourage manufacturers to replace sugar in part or in whole with less nutritious sweeteners to avoid penalties or to satisfy the desires of a developing population.

In our study, we found that non-nutritive sweeteners sold in beverages increased significantly in areas with high levels of sugar reduction policy.

Why is this a problem?

While the dangers of consuming too much added sugar are well-known, consuming non-nutritive sweeteners also carries risks. Despite the lack of dietary energy, recent reviews suggest that consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners may be associated with type 2 diabetes and heart disease and may disrupt the gut microbiome.

And because they’re sweet, ingesting unhealthy sweets affects our taste buds and makes us crave sweeter foods. This is especially a concern for children, who are still developing taste preferences throughout their lives.

Additionally, some non-nutritive sweeteners are considered environmental pollutants and cannot be effectively removed from wastewater.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are only found in ultra-processed foods. These dishes are industrially made, contain ingredients you won’t find in your home kitchen, and are designed to be “hyper delicious.” Eating more ultra-processed foods is linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and death.

Ultra-processed foods are also harmful to the environment, as they use significant resources such as energy, water, packaging materials and plastic waste.

Sweetened foods can be a “halo of health” if they don’t contain sugar, misleading the public and displacing nutritious, whole foods in the diet.

focus on nutrition

It is important to consider unintended consequences when developing policies to improve public nutrition. Instead of focusing on specific foods, it is better to advocate for policies that take into account the broader aspects of food, including cultural importance, levels of processing, and environmental aspects. Such policies should promote nutritious, less processed foods.

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

Cheri Russell, PhD Candidate, Deakin University; Carly Grimes, Senior Lecturer in Population Nutrition, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University; Phillip Baker, research fellow at Deakin University’s Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition, and Rebecca Lindberg, postdoctoral researcher at Deakin University.

This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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