Liquid Thinking

Not So Sweet

Have artificial sweeteners been gaslighting us?

7th June 2023

Abused, misused, and – luckily for brands – misunderstood, the ‘health’ label has been adopted by a rapidly expanding range of products over recent years, all looking to tap into the wellness trend. Though products such as all-natural fruit juices are complicit, there’s perhaps no greater example than the proliferation of the term ‘sugar-free’. In light of a new World Health Organization (WHO) report that finds that non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) are not only not good, but actively bad for us, we ask, what the hell does healthy actually mean anymore? 

Sitting comfortably? Good, we’ve a fairy-tale to tell you. Long, long ago sugar was good. So good in fact that it was more valuable than gold. To have access to it was a sign of status. Then sugar became readily and cheaply available; yay, sugar for all. And vast swathes of the world developed an incredible sweet tooth. 

But these abundant times didn’t last; governments and doctors across the world faced with rapidly expanding waistlines decided sugar was bad, and that both drinks brands in particular, and consumers should be incentivized to not use it. 

Since 2010, more than 40 countries around the world have introduced a form of sugar tax. In the UK a charge of 24p a litre for a drink with 8g or higher of added sugar per 100ml was announced in 2016, before being fully introduced two years later. In drinks, sugar substantially faded from use. 

The vast majority of UK soft drinks brands abandoned it (save for Coca Cola original, and Pepsi’s core brand), proudly declaring themselves ‘sugar-free’ across bold new pack designs, from energy drinks to kid’s juices. Few however, proudly proclaimed their use of artificial sweeteners instead. 

A sugar-free spanner in the works

Now, a bold new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) truly has thrown a massive spanner in the works of those health claims. Brands that have turned to sweetening substances such as aspartame, advantame, Acesulfame K, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and many, many more may now have to rethink their messaging as well as their formulas. 

The bombshell of a report released in May found that non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) present, as WHO puts it “an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality in adults”, and advises against their use for weight control. In short, not only are NSS – something that have been marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar – not good for you, they are actively very, very bad for you when used long term, if WHO’s report is to be believed. Ouch. 

The size of this U-turn can’t be underestimated. Previous studies had claimed that though they don’t offer health benefits, they also don’t cause harm. But WHO’s new report shoots this entirely out of the water. Francesco Branca, WHO Director for Nutrition and Food Safety, said: "Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term. People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugars intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages. 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."

A confusing state of affairs

While notably, bodies such as the British Soft Drinks Association have yet to comment, for consumers this is a confusing state of affairs. Many have bounced into purchasing products with NSS, after leaving the juice category since discovering, shock horror, that they’re not ‘healthy’ either. 

For years consumers have been purchasing pure or concentrated juice products believing them to have health benefits. After all, why wouldn’t they? Popped in the kids’ lunchbox and a staple of breakfast, where once consumers thought they were doing the right thing by consuming them, now many are broadly aware that orange juice for example, has a similar amount of sugar and calories as a glass of fizzy soda. 

From news headlines, to prominent studies, over the past few years word has got around that natural fruit juices are not good for us either. Though orange juice can rightly claim to contain nutrients (namely carotenoids, flavonoid and Vitamin C) that soda doesn’t, the extreme amounts of fructose it contains can cause obesity and liver damage. This is because juicing removes the insoluble fibre that slows down the digestion process, makes you feel fuller for longer and delays the absorption of sugar. Without it, it’s all too easy to consume high amounts of sugar, rapidly. Experts including Dr Robert Lustig, a US-based obesity expert and author of ‘Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar’recommend simply eating fruit or taking vitamins instead. 

After the WHO’s new findings, consumers trying to do the right thing are now faced with even more confusion about how to easily, quickly and conveniently get their five-a-day, or you know, just not consume something inherently bad for them. With both sugar-free and juice products claiming health benefits still, it’s a perplexing market for consumers to navigate.

Of course, the report is so recent that governments, brands and trade bodies alike have yet to have a chance to fully consider it. But when bodies such as the NHS for example still have guidelines on their public facing websites declaring its list of approved substances as “rigorously safety tested”, it leaves NSS in a grey area. For now. 

Seismic change? Not so far 

With so many products containing NSS, it’s not surprising there are objections to WHO’s findings. But this is far from the first time health concerns have been raised about these low-calorie chemical additives; after all ‘sweeteners’ is such a deliberately vague and distracting word for them.

Over the years, many studies into artificial sweeteners have found worrying potential side effects. Cyclamate, launched in the 1930s, was banned in the 1960s due to links to bladder cancer in rats. Aspartame has been flagged by studies as recent as the 2010s (conducted by the Ramazzini Institute in Italy) as causing malignant tumours in rodents. Yet the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has deemed it safe. 

In the US, saccharin was banned in 1981, again because of links to bladder cancer in rats. However, the ban was lifted in May 2000, when the US Department of Health and Human Services removed saccharin from its list of cancer-causing chemicals. Today the National Library of Medicine website proclaims that “humans would need to drink the equivalent of 800 twelve-ounce diet sodas with saccharin daily to reach the carcinogenic doses that induced rat bladder cancer.” 

What now?

So, does the new WHO report really reset the clock? It’s likely that any proposed changes to liquid formulations will be hard fought by brands. But what the report does do is raise the question, ‘what the hell is healthy anymore’? WHO’s findings may be up for scrutiny, but they expose an overlooked premise; that artificial sweeteners are not inert substances. They are not just ‘empty calories’, devoid of nutrition; they are active within the body. Shouldn’t brands have already known this?

In fact, sweeteners so far have occupied a bit of a deliberate blind spot for consumers, something brands have been able to exploit. In a climate where consumers are pushing for raw, natural, un-meddled with food, sweeteners have hitherto been given a pass. And that’s largely down to the noise around the adverse health effects of too much sugar consumption. Artificial sweeteners have not only targeted our health concerns, but our vanity too, leaned on by many as an effective way to control their weight. 

The problem with removing their widespread use across drinks is that a vast number of products have built a market on health, or at least have been exceptionally careful to just merely suggest it. When consumers read the words sugar-free, they automatically assume a product is better for their health. And while brands are quick to emblazon those two alluring words across their packaging, they’re less quick to actually say how and why that is the case. ‘With added Acesulfame K’ just isn’t as sexy. ‘With added Acesulfame K that may cause increase the risk of an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults’, definitely isn’t. 

Whether or not governments act on WHO’s guidelines then, is largely immaterial. All it needs is for the widespread perception by consumers that NSS are bad to take, to stick, and for enough consumers to reject products that contain them, for brands to act. Follow the money as they say. 

The domino effect of all these studies, both old and recent, is to cast doubt over an entire category of drinks, from sugar-free sodas to smoothies, chia seed waters and juices – basically anything with a better-for-you claim – as a building sense of ‘health-washing’ emerges. If two such ‘healthy’ categories as juices and sugar-free products can be brought down and exposed as actually being bad for you, then where is the line drawn? Many may rightly feel they have been lied to. 

But all of this leads us back to the same grey area, or at least the same question; if we can’t properly define what is healthy, can we at least make a strong and scrutinised attempt at defining what is ‘least bad’, and while we’re at it, very bad? Until then, let the sugar/ sweetener wars commence. As confused consumers drop out of the market, it’s doubtful brands are going to be quiet for long on this one. 


Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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