Americans are cutting back on sugar but increasing their consumption of sugar substitutes, and what that means for our health is not entirely clear, according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Between 2002 and 2018 purchases of foods and beverages containing sugar slumped while purchases of products with non-nutritive sweeteners increased in U.S. households. Beverages accounted for most of the products purchased containing sugar substitutes only or combined with sugar.
“It’s irrefutably good news that Americans are consuming less sugar in the past several years,” said Whitney Linsenmeyer, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University.
High sugar intake is related to a number of health issues such as weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many cancers.
“We’ve known that Americans consume too much sugar for a while; the average person consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar per day, compared to the American Heart Association recommendation of limiting sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men,” Linsenmeyer said.
As health-conscious Americans choose sugar substitutes over sugar, the market is taking notice.
“The U.S. food supply is rapidly shifting, and non-nutritive sweeteners are being added rapidly to the beverage supply and beginning to be used in foods as well,” said Barry Popkin, the study’s lead investigator and professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sugar substitutes can help people cut back on sugar, but it’s complicated.
“Sometimes the knowledge that a food is low-sugar can lead to overeating if we feel like we’ve been given a green light to overindulge,” Linsenmeyer said. “Foods made with non-nutritive sweeteners still count in our overall dietary patterns.”
Considered food additives, artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Seven including aspartame, sucralose (Splenda) and rebaudioside A (stevia) are recognized as generally safe for consumption.
“Although the general consensus is that non-nutritive sweeteners are safe for consumption, both scientific research and expert opinion have been fairly controversial in past years,” Linsenmeyer said. “There are plenty of gaps in the research that warrant further studies, especially now that we are seeing an uptick in consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners.”
When choosing a sweet treat, it can be helpful to think about the foods where sweetners are typically added instead of focusing on the individual ingredients, Linsenmeyer said.
“Is the chocolate chip cookie made with a non-nutritive sweetener really healthier than the chocolate chip cookie made with granulated white sugar? Both are a cookie, and shouldn’t be the foundation of a balanced diet,” she said. “If most of my diet is whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean protein, I’m really not going to worry too much about enjoying either type of cookie.”
Information about the types and amounts of non-nutritive sweeteners in foods and beverages should be included on the Nutrition Facts labels or as an information box in the front.