Foods and drinks are getting sweeter and sweeter. How it can affect your health

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New research shows that pre-packaged food and drinks have become sweeter over the past decade, which may increase the amount of sugar people consume each day. Kelly Knox/Stocksy
  • A study by the University of Cambridge has shown that food and drinks around the world are getting sweeter.
  • Excess sugar consumption is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
  • Non-nutritive sweeteners are often seen as a healthier alternative, but they also carry some health risks.
  • Sugar and sweeteners can be hard to spot on food labels.

Whether you’re a sweet or savory person, your sugar consumption may have increased over the past 10 years, as a new study from the University of Cambridge found that food and drink have become sweeter over the past decade.

According to the researchers, their study shows that “the amount of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and beverages has greatly increased” during this time frame.

They add that these findings are particularly true in middle-income countries such as China and India, as well as in Asia Pacific, including Australia.

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It’s not just added sugars that are a concern, but also non-nutritive or “artificial” sweeteners, which are commonly found in ultra-processed foods such as cookies, ice cream and soft drinks.

Using global market sales data, the researchers documented the amount of added sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and beverages from 2007 to 2019.

They found that, per person, volumes of non-nutritive sweeteners in drinks are 36% higher globally, while sugars in packaged foods are 9% higher.

Zoë Palmer-Wright, a nutritionist at YorkTest, says that by increasing the amount of sugar and sweeteners in food and drink, the food industry is making people crave these products so they buy more of them.

Whether you like the taste of sugar a little or a lot, sweet foods affect everyone’s brain in the same way,” she explains.

Eating sweet foods produces a release of chemicals, including dopamine, which has an opiate-like effect.

“As the sugar content of foods has continued to rise over the past decade, people have become increasingly drawn to altering their mood with these increasingly sweet foods,” she says.

While sugar and sweeteners can certainly make our food taste better and even give us a temporary dopamine boost, their health risks are well documented.

“If you’re eating a lot of sugary foods and your main meals aren’t nutritionally balanced either, you’re at a very real risk of developing blood sugar problems,” says Palmer-Wright.

In turn, this can lead to many chronic health problems down the road, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as increasing the risk of obesity.

“In the short term, unstable blood sugar levels put you on a roller coaster ride where you go between episodes of low blood sugar and high blood sugar,” adds Palmer-Wright.

“This can destabilize your mood and hormones, cause brain fog, headaches and a ravenous appetite.”

There are similar risks with non-nutritive sweeteners.

Cambridge University researchers note that despite their lack of food energy, recent reviews“suggests that consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners may be associated with type 2 diabetes and heart disease and may disrupt the gut microbiome.”

Cakes, donuts, and chocolate bars may come to mind when you think of sweet, sugary foods, but you could be consuming excess sugar without even realizing it.

That’s because salty foods and even foods labeled as “healthy” often contain “hidden” sugars. In fact, Palmer-Wright says that much of the sugar we eat these days comes from hidden sugar.

“Many cereals and cereal bars are full of sugar (some brands contain up to 12g of sugar in a single bar!) and fruit yoghurts can be high in sugar too,” she points out.

“Ironically, some low-fat or ‘diet’ products are also high in sugar, because when the fat is removed from the food, much of the flavor is lost, so manufacturers have to replace the fat with sugar or with artificial sweeteners,” Palmer. Wright adds.

Other high-sugar offenders include fruit juices, energy drinks, soups, salad dressings and condiments like ketchup.

Plus, you might be none the wiser about the sugar content of your food by looking at the label. Palmer-Wright says this is because food labels can be misleading.

“Sugar can be written as sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, maltose, dextrose, polydextrose, corn syrup, and maltodextrin, among other names,” she explains.

With foods getting sweeter and misleading labels making it difficult to decipher what you’re actually eating, it can seem like cutting back on sugar is a losing battle.

First, it can help to know how much sugar you should be consuming on a daily basis.

Sal Hanvey, also a nutritionist at YorkTest, says that according to daily allowance recommendations, adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day (about the equivalent of 7 sugar cubes).

She says that in some countries, color-coded labels will let you see at a glance whether foods are high, medium or low in sugars.

When making more conscious food choices, you’ll also need to be aware of when sugar has been replaced with an artificial sweetener. Many people often see them as a healthier alternative.

However, Hanvey says the word “artificial” speaks for itself. These artificial substances do not occur or develop naturally. They are usually industrially manufactured and manufactured on a large scale,” she points out.

If you want to avoid them, check the ingredients list on the label.

Hanvey says names to watch for and avoid where possible include: aspartame (NutraSweet), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and sucralose (Splenda).

In an increasingly busy world filled with competing commitments, taking a few extra minutes to check the label may seem like a chore, but it could make all the difference when it comes to your health.