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New research finds that prepackaged food and drinks have been getting sweeter over the past decade, which can increase the daily amount of sugar people consume. Kelly Knox/Stocksy
  • A Cambridge University study has shown that foods and drinks around the world are getting sweeter.
  • Excess sugar consumption is linked with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
  • Non-nutritive sweeteners are often seen as a healthier alternative but also carry certain health risks.
  • Sugar and sweeteners can be difficult to spot on food labels.

Whether you’re a sweet or a savory person, chances are, in the past 10 years, your sugar consumption has increased, as a new study by Cambridge University has found that food and drinks have been getting sweeter over the last decade.

According to the researchers, their study shows “the amount of added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged foods and drinks has grown a lot,” in this time frame.

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

It’s not just added sugars that are a concern, but non-nutritive or ‘artificial’ sweeteners too, which are typically found in ultra-processed foods, like cookies, ice cream, and soft drinks.

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

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

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

Regardless of whether you enjoy the taste of sugar a little bit or a lot, sweet foods affect everyone’s brains 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 soar over the past decade, people have become more and more hooked on altering their mood with these increasingly sweet foods,” she says.

While sugar and sweeteners can certainly improve the taste of our food and even give us a temporary hit of dopamine, their health risks are well documented.

“If you eat a lot of sweet foods and your main meals are not nutritionally balanced either, you run the very real risk of developing blood sugar problems,” says Palmer-Wright.

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

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

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

There are similar risks with non-nutritive sweeteners.

The Cambridge University researchers note that, despite their lack of dietary energy, recent reviews, “suggest consuming non-nutritive sweeteners may be linked with type 2 diabetes and heart disease and can disrupt the gut microbiome.”

Cakes, doughnuts, and chocolate bars might spring to mind when you think of sweet, sugary foods, but you could be consuming excess sugar without realizing it.

That’s because savory foods and even foods marked as ‘healthy’ often contain ‘hidden’ sugars. In fact, Palmer-Wright says much of the sugar we consume these days is from hidden sugar.

“Many cereals and cereal bars are full of sugar (some brands contain up to 12g of sugar in just one bar!) and fruit yogurts can contain a lot of 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 goes too, 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.

What’s more, you may 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, amongst other names,” she explains.

With foods becoming sweeter and misleading food labels making it difficult to decipher what you’re actually eating, it may seem like reducing your sugar intake is a losing battle.

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

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

She says that in some countries labels that include color coding will allow you to see at a glance if the food has a high, medium, or low amount of 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 these as a healthier alternative.

However, Hanvey says the word ‘artificial’ speaks for itself. These artificial substances don’t occur or develop naturally. They are typically industrially made 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 look out for and avoid where possible include: aspartame (NutraSweet), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and sucralose (Splenda).

In an increasingly busy world full of competing commitments, taking an extra few minutes to double-check the label can seem like a tall order, but it might just make the difference when it comes to your health.