Use of low-calorie sweeteners in beverages jumped 36% in a decade, research finds

Dive Brief:

  • The volume of low-calorie sweeteners consumed from beverages by an individual has risen 36% during the last decade, according to a review of global market sales data spanning 2007 to 2019 by researchers at Australia’s Deakin University. These “non-nutritive” sweeteners include artificial varieties such as aspartame and Acesulfame-K, as well as natural options like stevia and monk fruit.
  • The amount of added sugars from beverage sales also has risen globally, driven mainly by a 50% increase in middle-income countries such as India and China, according to the research. Meanwhile, per-person volumes of added sugars in drinks fell 22% in high-income countries like the U.S. and Australia.
  • Researchers argue non-nutritive sweeteners, despite being low-calorie, have been linked to health issues like type 2 diabetes and heart disease and can disrupt the gut microbiome. They also could train consumers to want more sweet food, an issue especially relevant to kids.

Dive Insight:

As the Deakin University researchers observed in an analysis of their findings, “our packaged food supply is getting sweeter.” And whether through added sugar or low-calorie sweeteners, there are implications for public health.

While experts recommend men consume fewer than nine teaspoons of added sugar a day and women under six, Americans have consistently exceeded the guidelines.

U.S. adults consume an average of 17 teaspoons of added sugars per day, according to the USDA. Although beverages like sodas and juices have been a key source of added sugar, Deakin University researchers found per-person volumes in packaged food from 2007 to 2019 rose by 9%.

Low-calorie sweeteners have been presented as a way for consumers to soothe their sweet tooth without the same consequences as sugar. But the researchers noted non-nutritive sweeteners are often found in ultra-processed foods that are designed to be “hyper-palatable.” This dynamic is especially concerning for children. In the United States, about two-thirds of calories for kids come from these types of foods, which include chips, cookies, microwaveable meals and frozen pizza.

Ultra-processed foods are not only linked to serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but also early death. However, researchers argue, foods containing non-nutritive sweeteners instead of sugar appear to have a “health halo” among consumers. They contend this is not only misleading but could also prevent people from eating nutritious whole foods.

The FDA has provided acceptable daily intake guidelines on many low-calorie sweeteners, even as their long-term health effects are inconclusive.

Meanwhile, Deakin University researchers found regions that have enacted more policy actions to reduce sugar consumption — such as taxes and labeling restrictions — saw a “significant”  jump in non-nutritive sweeteners sold in beverages. These include countries like the United Kingdom, Mexico and South Africa.

The U.S. federal government has largely avoided regulating sugar content in foods and beverages. In 2020, the government updated its Dietary Guidelines for Americans without advising consumers to reduce their consumption of added sugars.