Humans have an evolutionary preference for sweets. Sweet foods like fruit and honey were an important source of energy for our ancestors.
However, in the modern world, sugary foods are readily available, very cheap and widely advertised. We now consume too much sugar in food and drink – the kind that is added rather than the sugar that occurs naturally. 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 as well. 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 sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and drinks has increased significantly over the past decade. This is particularly true in middle-income countries such as China and India, as well as in Asia and the Pacific, including Australia.
From lollipops to cookies to drinks
We looked at the amount of added sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners sold in packaged foods and beverages from 2007 to 2019, based on market sales data from around the world.
We found that volumes of non-nutritive sweeteners in drinks per person 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 sugary cookies are the fastest growing food category for these sweeteners. The expanding use of added sugars and other sweeteners over the last decade means our packaged foods are getting sweeter.
Our analysis shows that the amount of added sugar used to sweeten drinks has increased worldwide. However, this is largely explained by the 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.
It is recommended that men consume less than nine teaspoons of sugar a day, while women should have less than six. But because sugar is added to so many foods and drinks, more than half of Australians exceed the recommendation, eating an average of 14 teaspoons a day.
The shift from using added sugar to sweeteners to sweeten beverages is most common in carbonated soft drinks and bottled water. The World Health Organization is preparing guidelines for the use of non-sugar sweeteners.
Read more: Sugar detox? Cutting carbs? The doctor explains why you should have fruit on your diet
Rich and poor countries
There is a difference in the use of added sugar and sweeteners between richer and poorer countries. The packaged food and beverage market in high-income countries has become saturated. To continue growing, large food and beverage corporations are expanding into middle-income countries.
Our findings demonstrate a double standard in food sweetening, with manufacturers providing less sweet, “healthier” products in wealthier countries.
Read more: How long do we have to wait for Australia to introduce a tax on sugary drinks?
Unexpected consequences of control
To reduce the health damage caused by high intakes of added sugar, many governments have stepped in to limit their use and consumption. These measures include sugar levies, education campaigns, restrictions on advertising and labelling.
However, such moves may encourage manufacturers to partially or completely replace sugar with non-nutritive sweeteners to avoid penalties or to accommodate changing public preferences.
In our study, we found that regions with a higher number of policy measures to reduce sugar intake experienced a significant increase in non-nutritive sweeteners sold in drinks.
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 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 are sweet, consuming non-nutritive sweeteners affects our taste buds and encourages us to want more sugary foods. This is especially important for children who are still developing their taste preferences. In addition, some non-nutritive sweeteners are considered to pollute the environment 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 your home kitchen, and are designed to be “hyper 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 significant resources such as energy, water, packaging materials and plastic waste.
Foods that contain sweeteners can be given a “healthy halo” if they are sugar-free, misleading the public and potentially crowding out nutritious whole foods in the diet.
Read more: The poorest Americans drink far more sugary drinks than the richest — so soda taxes could help reduce stark health disparities
Focus on nutrition
When developing policy to improve public health nutrition, it is important to consider unintended consequences. Rather than focusing on specific nutrients, it makes sense to promote policies that take into account the broader aspects of food, including cultural significance, levels 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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