A new study published last week revealed that the amount of both added sugar and non-nutritive (or artificial) sweeteners in food and drinks has increased over the last decade across the globe, raising new concerns on global health. Artificial sweeteners are often marketed globally as a healthier and more beneficial alternative to sugar since they allegedly do not add to a person’s calorie intake while still retaining the same sweetness of refined sugar. However, previous studies have indicated that increased sweetness from both sugar and artificial sweeteners is linked to health hazards like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay, thus deeming the findings of the current study on sweeter foods and beverages significantly worrying.

For their study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, researchers looked into market sales data around the globe and specifically checked for the quantity of added sugar and non-nutritive sugar in food and beverage packets between 2007 and 2019. On analyzing the data, the scientists discovered that over the last decade, and especially in middle-income countries such as China and India and in the Asia-Pacific region (including Australia), food and drinks have become substantially sweeter than they were ten years ago. Artificial sweeteners in drinks increased by 36% in per person volumes in this period, while the number for added sugar in packaged food has grown by 9% in the same amount of time. These are well beyond recommended numbers of daily sugar intake.

The researchers in their work also delve into how governments, realizing the harm that added sugars can do, are trying to curb them by introducing regulations. However, the scientists caution, this can often result in the unintended consequence of an increase in artificial sweeteners — for which regulatory standards have not been set yet. The researchers flag the long-term health risks from this substitution of added sugar with artificial sweeteners: they can influence the palate for sweetness, encouraging humans to incorporate even more sugar in their diets. Some artificial sweeteners are also harmful for the environment as they cannot be effectively removed from wastewater; and since they are used almost exclusively in ultra-processed and industrialized foods, they can increase chances of people developing hazardous health problems such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.

The researchers thus highlight how at times official health regulations can go on to have unintended consequences that need to be accounted for with much more scrutiny. For instance, they found how in countries where institutional regulations on added sugar were high, there was greater consumption of sweetened drinks using artificial sweeteners. Hence, instead of leaving an open field for artificial substitutions to take over, the researchers suggest that governments ought to more proactively encourage people to control the amount of overall sweetness they consume everyday. Otherwise, regulations would only lead to what the researchers term a “health halo”, where consumers will be tricked to consume more sweetness — leading to grave health consequences in the long term.

Interestingly, middle-income countries alone account for over 50% of this global increase in the amount of sweetness in foods and drinks, whereas some higher-income countries such as the US have actually shown a decline in the consumption of added sugar and artificial sweeteners in the same period. Further, as added sugars and artificial sweeteners are mostly found in ultra processed foods, a significant chunk of their numbers increasing only through one part of the world also signals at other worrying questions such as those of food and nutrition inequality between developed and developing countries. A poignant reminder of this imbalance and inequality is the rampant soft-drink addiction in Latin American Countries such as Mexico, where a bottle of Coca-Cola is at times more easily available than drinking water.

The study thus does not only raise new concerns about the increased sweetness in daily food intake, but is also a reminder of how corporate profit margins drive global nutrition inequality. Writing in The Conversation about their study, the researchers explained that a reason for this nutrition inequality between higher and middle-income countries is the saturation of existing markets for processed foods and beverages in the former. To continue their expansion, corporations — which usually originate from the higher-income countries — manufacturing these foods and drinks are now forced to look at middle-income countries. The researchers note the “double standard in the sweetening of the food supply” displayed by these corporations, “with manufacturers providing less sweet, ‘healthier’ products in richer countries.”

The precedence of Coca-Cola over water in Mexico is not an isolated incident of food corporations pushing unhealthy diets for growing profits at the expense of the health of residents in middle-income nations. Data from the fourth round of the National Family Health Survey released in 2018 revealed that less than half of all Indians were consuming a balanced diet, instead substituting regular cooked meals with packaged food. According to a study co-authored by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published last year, 68% of packaged food in India contains excessive amounts of sugar and salt, way beyond what is considered healthy. Packaged foods, and particularly instant noodles, have overtaken cooked, balanced meals in other Asian countries also, where they are often cheaper and require less effort to prepare, even altering dietary practices among children. Even in India, an integral portion of the junk diet is formed by Maggi, an instant noodle brand of Nestle — the world’s largest manufacturer of processed foods — that was reported to have acknowledged in an internal document that over 60% of its products were “unhealthy”.

The new study on increased global sweetness in foods and drinks thus corroborates the fact that food-manufacturers in higher-income countries have had a role to play in perpetuating a global nutrient imbalance. Even as some higher-income countries move to healthier diets, middle-income countries alone represent a global surge in the increase in sweetness in foods and drinks.

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