Recently WHO (World Health Organization) advised that people should not consume non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) for weight control. So, are no / low / reduced sugar food and beverages, with NSS, healthy?
There have been numerous reports of shoppers wanting healthier foods / options in supermarkets. Generally speaking, manufacturers and supermarkets have improved their ranges to meet shopper demands based on current research / thinking. This has included decreasing fat, sugar and salt content in food and beverage ranges. However, obesity levels continue to increase. Should manufacturers and supermarkets now focus on reducing or removing NSS?
1.9 billion adults were overweight, 650 million obese
39% adults are overweight, 13% adults obese
18% children and adolescents (aged 5 to 19) were overweight vs 4% in 1975
WHO has been investigating potential causes of increasing obesity worldwide. Research by WHO highlighted an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars plus an increase in physical inactivity has increased obesity levels. Logically, WHO suggested the food industry could help decrease obesity levels by reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods. Generally speaking, the food and beverage industry has done this and healthier options are available for consumers.
Recently, the World Obesity Federation predicted that over 50% of the global population will be overweight and obese by 2035. Some will argue the increasing rate of overweight / obese people is due to the food and beverage industry. So, what else can the food and beverage industry do to improve the general health of the population?
‘The recommendation is based on the findings of a systematic review of the available evidence which suggests that use of NSS does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children. Results of the review also suggest that there may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.’
Source: WHO (WHO advises not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control in newly released guide, May 23)
Recently WHO updated their recommendation for people not to consume NSS for weight control due to potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS. Simply put the analysis of research suggests that consuming products containing NSS does not decrease peoples’ body fat. So, people consuming NSS for weight control are still at risk of disease. Research details can be found at WHO (Health effects of the use of non-sugar sweeteners: a systematic review and meta-analysis, April 22).
As outlined in my blog, Will Australia introduce a sugar tax?, countries have tried to minimise obesity levels by introducing taxes and legislation on unhealthy food and beverages. For example, the UK government introduced the SSB (sugar-sweetened beverages) tax (also known as Soft Drinks Industry Levy) in 2018. AMA (Australian Medical Association) estimates that 85 countries have a SSB tax now. Recently the UK government has implemented HFSS (high fat, sugar and salt) restrictions. This includes limiting where HFSS food and beverages can be displayed in store and volume promotions, e.g. BOGOF (buy one get one free) (The Grocer , A timeline of HFSS restrictions, Oct 22).
As reported by The Guardian (The price of ‘sugar free’: are sweeteners as harmless as we thought, Dec 22) the introduction of sugar taxes may have led to an increase in the use of NSS in many food and beverage categories.
In 2014 the Australian government launched a voluntary HSR (health star rating) for food and beverages. It is hoped that this system will help shoppers decrease their consumption of unhealthy food and beverages (high in saturated fat, salt, sugars and energy).
These various types of government legislation, including voluntary guidelines, have the same goal of decreasing the level of overweight / obese people in the population. However, the rate of overweight / obese people is increasing. So, will governments legislate NSS next?
Healthier Food and Beverages
Manufacturers and supermarkets have been developing healthier ranges of food and beverages for decades. For example, Coca Cola launched Diet Coke in 1982. This no sugar soft drink contained less kilojoules / calories than original Coca Cola. Similarly, Aldi reformulated their P/L (private label) ranges to have no artificial colours news.com.au (Aldi removes artificial colours from food, Apr 11). This decision was based on research by University of Southampton that demonstrated increased levels of hyperactivity in young children after consuming artificial colours. There are numerous other examples of healthier food and beverages including reduced fat, sugar and salt ranges. Is the next opportunity no / low NSS products?
‘Two key trends have impacted consumer food consumption patterns in 2023 and will continue to do so through 2024; a strong desire to eat more healthily and outcomes of tightening household budgets.’
Davidson Brands, The Australian Healthy Foods Report
There is already a vast amount of research highlighting shoppers demands for healthier foods. For example, Davidson Brands identify the growing trend towards ‘purposeful eating’ (choosing foods based on their benefits). This research also highlighted that 48% of the population (Australians) are now eating specific foods to have a generally healthier diet. Interestingly the research also highlights 40% of the population wonder how healthy or unhealthy a particular food is. So, do shoppers perceive products with NSS as being unhealthy?
“Basically, this is a diet that eliminates all added sugars, foods high in natural sugars, and sugar substitutes”
Sonya Angelone, RD
Source: Women’s Health, What Is The No-Sugar Diet—And Is It Healthy To Follow? Jan 23
Some will argue that the no-sugar diet gained popularity due to John Yudkins’ book, Pure, White and Deadly (1972). Since the 1950s’ Yudkin argued that sugar consumption was a factor in the development of conditions such as dental caries, obesity, diabetes and heart attack. As noted by Wikipedia Yudkin’s book was criticised by the sugar and processed food industry. Interestingly in his book Yudkin suggested legislation to limit consumption of sugar would occur. Now 50 years later we have SSB tax in many countries. At a similar time, William Duffy wrote his book Sugar Blues (1975). As explained by Wikipedia Duffy compared sugar to addictive drugs such as heroin. More recently books such as Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013) by Michael Moss have suggested that modern UPF (ultra processed foods) could be addictive.
The numerous books, research papers, media reports, social media plus advice from health professionals highlighting the potential dangers of a high sugar diet have logically influenced shopper demands. Therefore, it is logical that shoppers would switch to products containing NSS, that could be labelled no sugar. With WHO now stating potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS will shoppers’ focus be on removing NSS from their diets? Before WHO released their guidelines other sources of information were casting doubt about the benefits of NSS. For example, USA Today (Are sugar substitutes healthy? Research doesn’t yet offer comforting answers, Mar 23) stated Now, studies are raising concerns about the health effects of these substitutes.
‘the COVID-19 crisis perceptibly shifted consumer behavior and enlarged the pool of conscientious consumers willing to pay more for healthier, safer, more environmentally and socially conscious products and brands.’
PWC, Beyond compliance: Consumers and employees want business to do more on ESG, 2021
As explained in my blog, ESG in FMCG , shopper demands have evolved to include an expectation that all manufacturers and supermarkets will have a positive impact on society. Obviously selling a range of products that can have a negative impact on consumers health is not acceptable.
The challenge for manufacturers and supermarkets selling products containing NSS is how to manage shoppers demand for healthier ranges. The debate is not whether use of NSS is legal, the debate is whether shoppers perceive products containing NSS as healthy. Some will argue products containing NSS (less kilojoules / calories) are a healthier option vs products that contain high levels of fat, salt or sugar. However, others will argue that there is potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, as per WHO guidelines and numerous other sources of information.
Some in the food and beverage industry may suggest WHO changing their guidelines on consumption of NSS is not important. They will suggest the shopper needs to take responsibility for their actions (food and beverage choices). They will suggest changes in lifestyles, less physical activity, is a major factor. However, what does the modern ESG shopper expect from the food and beverage industry?
Nestle, the world’s largest food company, is an example of how shopper and society demand’s for healthier food’s is affecting food and beverage manufacturers. I must stress Nestle has tried to position themselves as a positive member of society. Their slogan good food, good life encapsulates this. Their purpose Unlocking the power of food to enhance quality of life for everyone, today and for generations to come again highlights their goal of having a positive impact on people.
As reported by bmj (Obesity conference ditches Nestle as sponsor after protests, March 23) the European Congress on Obesity removed Nestle as a sponsor following widespread condemnation on social media. Simply put social media posts suggested Nestle was not an appropriate sponsor for a conference with the goal of decreasing obesity.
As reported by the Financial Times (Nestle investors warn of ‘systemic risks’ from unhealthy foods, April 23) a group of institutional investors wants Nestle to be less reliant on unhealthy products. They suggest there is a systemic risk with selling products with limited nutritional value.
These 2 recent events highlight that Nestle, with their deep pockets, appears to struggle to convince society that they are delivering a ‘good food, good life’. So, should Nestle (and others) decrease their use of NSS as per WHO guidelines? If the industry does not implement these changes will governments implement legislation to decrease the consumption of NSS?
There is a plethora of research highlighting shoppers demands for healthier food and beverages. Generally speaking, the food and beverage industry is offering healthier alternatives such as low fat, salt and sugar ranges. The challenge for the industry is the increasing levels of overweight and obese people. Is the next step reducing or removing NSS?
Shoppers, society in general and governments expect the food and beverage industry to have a positive impact on society. If the industry does not meet these expectation’s then the downside can be long-term financial decline. Other countries already have taxes, e.g. SSB tax, and marketing restrictions, e.g. HFSS, to limit sales of unhealthy food and beverages. In the short term the Australian government could implement similar legislation. Also, will shoppers buy food and beverages from businesses that sell unhealthy products?
IMHO (in my humble opinion) the food and beverage industry, as they have done before, will develop healthier ranges based on the latest research / thinking. If WHO guidelines suggest decreased consumption of NSS for consumers then the industry will develop these ranges. The real challenge for the industry will be ensuring the flavour profile (less sweet) is enjoyed by shoppers.
“NSS are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value. People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health.”
Source: WHO (WHO advises not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control in newly released guide, May 23)
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