Sweetener Use in the U.S.

January 29, 2013

A new study looks at the relationship of sweetener use in the U.S. and changing taste preferences, energy intake and dietary patterns.

Originally published in Food, Nutrition & Science. 

The majority (75%) of formulated foods contain sweeteners, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina and published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study looked at 85,451 uniquely formulated foods and found that 68% used caloric sweeteners, 1% used non-caloric sweeteners, and 6% used both caloric and noncaloric sweeteners. Added sweeteners are different from naturally occurring sugars.

Interest in how sweeteners function in the American food supply has grown in recent years, as there is a large variety of both caloric and noncaloric sweeteners used in foods. Concerns about how these sweeteners affect health, especially since sweeteners are sources of energy with very little nutritional value, have brought the issue to the nutrition dialogue forefront. The purpose of this study was for researchers to gain a better understanding of how sweeteners are used in the U.S.

Researchers found that caloric sweeteners are used in more than 95% of cakes, cookies and pies, granola, protein and energy bars, ready-to-eat cereals, sweet snacks, and sugar-sweetened beverages, while noncaloric sweeteners are used in more than 33% of yogurts and sport/energy drinks. Noncaloric sweeteners are also used in 42% of waters (plain or flavored), and most dietetic sweetened beverages.

While 77% of the calories purchased contained caloric sweeteners and 3% contained noncaloric sweeteners, trends during the period studied (2005 to 2009) suggest a shift toward purchasing more products with noncaloric sweeteners. The most commonly listed sweeteners in this study were corn syrup, followed by sorghum, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and fruit juice concentrate. 

Study author Dr. Barry M. Popkin says they are concerned about the large proportion of goods containing caloric and/or noncaloric sweeteners for a number of reasons. Not only is there evidence on the relationship between the intake of sweeteners and heart health, but there is also concern that exposure to so much sweet stuff in our food could lead to changing taste preferences, energy intake and dietary patterns.

“From an evolutionary perspective, sweet foods have been safe and encouraged. We needed to consume berries and other sweet foods when available. As a consequence, adding sweetness flavoring to foods is a great way to sell them. In addition, there are certain cooking and processing properties related to using sweeteners. However, I believe, the major reason for adding caloric sweeteners is to get us to want to consume this product and consume more of it,” says Popkin.

The relationship between noncaloric sweeteners and energy intake is yet unclear. Also unclear are the labels regarding sweeteners. Currently, nutrition labels do not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, making it tough for consumers to monitor intake. Efforts to include added sugars as part of the Nutrition Facts Label have been ongoing for years but have not been successful. Popkin says the greatest reason to include them is to educate the public and force manufacturer to show what they are adding – and to put pressure on them to reduce the added sugar content of food.

“Because there are no nutrients, and caloric sweeteners are what we term empty calories, they should be minimized. For many, like diabetics, and people who are at risk of excess weight or are too heavy, labels would help them,” says Popkin.

Popkin says that for caloric beverages, they know that we do not reduce food intake when we consume these beverages. And there are literally hundreds of studies to suggest we need to find regulatory ways to minimize intake of calorically sweetened beverages. However, thus far, they have not found evidence that noncaloric or diet sweeteners do any harm. 

“We have the fear that they increase intake of sweet foods but we have no evidence that this occurs. To date, we have no reason not to encourage diet beverages. But it is the calories in beverages we need to seriously regulate, tax, remove from schools, and modify the marketing. Over 20 countries have banned them from schools, a half dozen or more have done the same with fruit juices, and five to eight countries have banned all advertisements and marketing of these products on TV and other media. In many ways they represent the tobacco of the food supply,” says Popkin.