There are lots of reasons why so much sugar gets added to ultra-processed food products. Adding sweetness is only the most obvious one. Sugar is also used as a preservative and to help fermentation along. It can act as a coloring or bulking agent. It can modify flavors.
That’s why it shows up in foods that don’t even register as particularly sweet, from tangy salad dressings to savory snacks and a great deal of frozen and ready-to-eat meals, not to mention fast food.
It’s easy to end up eating far more sugar than you realize. The average American eats 17 teaspoons of the stuff every day. That’s equal to roughly 70 grams, or slightly more than you’d get from a 20-ounce Coca-Cola.
It’s also more than the widely accepted maximum intake of 10% of your daily calories. For an adult who eats 2000 calories a day, that works out to 12 teaspoons of added sugars each day, or 50 grams. This is double what’s considered the “ideal” for health.
The maximum is even lower than that ideal if your goal is to keep your teeth and gums healthy. For that, your intake should be no more than 3% of your daily calories: just under 4 teaspoons of added sugars daily, or 15 grams.
Considering all the damage that refined sugars can do to your health (you’ll find a full list with documentation here), the last thing the world needs is more sugar. Yet more sugar – and sugar substitutes – is exactly what it’s getting.
According to new research in Public Health Nutrition, added sugars in ultra-processed food products have jumped 9% since 2007, while sugar substitutes have risen 36%. The increases were most dramatic in middle-income countries, where the markets for ultra-processed food aren’t nearly as saturated as in high-income countries like our own, Canada, and most of Europe.
The increase in sugar substitutes isn’t necessarily wonderful, and not just because some of them have their own negative impact on health. As long as we eat sweet, we keep ourselves primed for sweet – a flavor category we’re already hardwired to prefer anyway.
As the authors of the PHN paper recently wrote over at The Conversation,
While the harms of consuming too much added sugar are well known, relying on non-nutritive sweeteners as a solution also carries risk. 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.
And because they are sweet, ingesting non-nutritive sweeteners influences our palates and encourages us to want more sweet food. This is of particular concern for children, who are still developing their lifelong taste preferences. Additionally, certain non-nutritive sweeteners are considered environmental contaminants and are not effectively removed from wastewater.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are only found in ultra-processed foods. These foods are industrially made, contain ingredients you would not find in a home kitchen, and are designed to be “hyper-palatable”. Eating more ultra-processed foods is linked with more heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and death.
Ultra-processed foods are also environmentally harmful because they use significant resources such as energy, water, packaging materials and plastic waste.
Foods that contain sweeteners can receive a “health halo” if they don’t contain sugar, misleading the public and potentially displacing nutritious, whole foods in the diet.
Far better than shifting to “healthier” although still problematic sweeteners is to simply jump off the sugar train all together. For a lot of us, though, that can feel like a heavy lift. Here are some tips – some self-evident, others less so – for making that lift feel a whole lot lighter: