Speaking to The Conversation earlier this year, anthropologist Stephen Woodling delved into our almost evolutionary preference for sweeter things, revealing that foods like honey and fruit, which are naturally sweet, were an important source of energy for our ancestors. He concluded by sharing that when you cater to your sweet tooth, you’re simply responding precisely as programmed by natural selection.
Okay, so our craving for the sweeter side of life is understandable and fair. However, we should still be worried about the amount of readily available (and cheap) sweetened food around us. Regardless of how sweet our ancestors liked their foods, the high levels of sugar we are consuming is making it highly likely that we’re going to be joining said ancestors very soon. In fact, a recent study has found that food has become much sweeter in recent years, spelling trouble for our health.
Food Is Becoming Too Sweet For Our Health
Numerous studies have revealed how a diet high in sugar can lead to an early death. To curb our sweet tooth, governments and regulatory health bodies have founded policies to curb high levels of shut consumption. As a result of these policies, food manufacturers have been encouraged to find new ways to sweeten their food. To do this, they’ve turned to non-nutritive sweeteners, which include artificial sweeteners like aspartame, and those that come from natural sources, like stevia.
With this in mind, researchers from Cambridge University set out to evaluate how the addition of non-nutritive sweeteners has changed. This is especially in relation to the number of national policy actions across the globe aimed at reducing sugar consumption.
Using market sales data from around the globe, the researchers looked at the quantity of added sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners sold in packaged foods and drinks from 2007 to 2019.
According to the findings of the study, the amount of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and drinks has grown a lot over the last decade. In fact, the researchers found that, per person, the volumes of non-nutritive sweeteners in drinks and foods grew 36% and 9% more, respectively.
Additionally, the researchers noted that regions with more policy actions aimed at reducing sugar consumption experienced a significant increase in non-nutritive sweeteners sold in drinks.
“Non-nutritive sweeteners are most commonly added to confectionery. Ice creams and sweet biscuits are the fastest-growing food categories in terms of these sweeteners. The expanding use of added sugars and other sweeteners over the last decade means, overall, our packaged food supply is getting sweeter.”
Why is “fake” sugar bad for you?
It is important to note that foods with non-nutritive sweeteners have been designed to influence our palates. They encourage us to want more sweet foods, which can then pose a big risk to your health. We all know the basics of why excess sugar is bad for you, but just how safe are non-nutritive sweeteners?
A review from the World Health Organisation attempted to answer his question by compiling the most current scientific evidence on the health effects of non-sugar sweetener use.
The review linked a diet high in non-nutritive sweeteners to an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It was also found to disrupt the gut microbiome.
How can I reduce my (fake) sugar intake?
If you think of sugary foods, you’ll think of the sweet treats on offer at a child’s birthday party. However, you should be worried about the hidden sugars found in ‘healthy’ foods like cereals, energy bars, and yogurts.
The only way to avoid hidden sugars is by keeping an eye out for them. Sugar comes under many different names, and so does the artificial kind. Common names for sugar include sucrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, maltose, and dextrose. On the other hand, common names for artificial sugar include:
- aspartame (NutraSweet)
- acesulfame-K (Sweet One)
- saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
- sucralose (Splenda)
Becoming accustomed to reading food labels and avoiding products that have these sugars as their first few ingredients is the sweetest thing you can do for your health.
Rios-Leyvraz M, Montez J. Health effects of the use of non-sugar sweeteners: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2022. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
Russell, C., Baker, P., Grimes, C., Lindberg, R., & Lawrence, M. (2022). Global trends in added sugars and non-nutritive sweetener use in the packaged food supply: Drivers and implications for public health. Public Health Nutrition, 1-13. doi:10.1017/S1368980022001598