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The global diet is getting sweeter, a trend that threatens to lead to more chronic disease

REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages “is rising fastest in low- and middle-income countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania.”

We Americans may be drinking less sugar-sweetened beverages than we were a few years ago, but we still drink much more per person than almost every other country in the world.

Indeed, we ingest more than twice as many calories per person from our beverages than most Europeans and more than three times as many as people living in Japan, China and South Korea.

Only Chile and Mexico have surpassed us in this dubious category.

Yet other areas of the world are catching up with us — or, rather, following our unhealthful lead. For according to research published this week in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, the global diet is getting sweeter, especially when it comes to beverages.

That is very bad health news, for other research has shown that sugar-sweetened foods and beverages are associated with an increased risk of weight gain and many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Here in the United States, 68 percent of packaged foods and beverages contain some kind of added sugar.

“We believe that in the absence of intervention, the rest of the world will move towards this pervasiveness of added sugars in the food supply,” warn the study’s co-authors, Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina and Corinna Hawkes of the City University London.

U.S. ranked third

For their paper, Popkin and Hawkes used various global datasets to analyze and compare worldwide sales trends for sugar-sweetened beverages, which include soft drinks, fruit drinks, and sports and energy drinks.

They found that the consumption of these beverages “is rising fastest in low- and middle-income countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania.”

“The four regions with the current highest consumption,” they add, “are Latin America, North America, Australasia and Western Europe, though intakes are beginning to decline in the latter three.”

In 2014, the United States was ranked third in sales of caloric beverages per person, behind Chile and Mexico, and just ahead of Argentina and Saudi Arabia. In 2000, the U.S. was ranked No. 1.

That drop to third place is partly the result of Chileans and Mexicans drinking more sugary beverages, but it’s also the result of Americans drinking less — at least, less sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Americans have significantly increased their consumptions of sugary sports and energy drinks during the past decade.

More action — and research — needed

As Popkin and Hawkes point out, global public health officials, at the World Health Organization (WHO) and elsewhere, have launched initiatives to try to reduce the consumption of added sugar. Earlier this year, WHO issued new sugar guidelines that advised people to keep their “free” sugar (glucose, fructose and sucrose) intake to at least less than 10 percent of their total daily energy intake, which is about 12 teaspoons of sugar daily.

Less than 5 percent (no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar daily) would probably be even better for people’s health, the guidelines suggest. (The American Heart Association already recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar daily for women and no more than 9 teaspoons for men.)

Many governments have also taken more direct action to encourage people to lower their consumption of sugary foods — especially sugary beverages. These efforts include implementing “sugar” taxes, revising product labels to help consumers more easily identify sugar content, reducing the availability of sugary products in school, restricting the marketing of sugary foods to children, and creating educational and public-awareness campaigns.

‘Taxation policies can be effective’

“Evidence from Mexico shows that taxation policies can be effective; other policies and regulations in Chile and other countries are too new to be assessed,” write Popkin and Hawkes.

The two experts also say that more research needs to be done on the health effects of two potential substitutes for sugary beverages — 100 percent fruit juices and beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners — to determine “how to treat [these] drinks … in the design of policies to tackle consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Some research has suggested that both fruit juices and drinks made with low-calorie sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame are (like sugary beverages) associated with increased weight and poorer health. But those studies haven’t always been well designed, and scientists have not yet come to a consensus on this issue.

You’ll find an abstract of the paper by Popkin and Hawkes on the website of The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, but the full paper is behind a paywall.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 12/03/2015 - 09:15 am.

    What role do US corporations play in worsening the problem?

    There are many facets to this public health problem and all too often giant food corporations and their trade groups have played a role that’s harmful to public health.

    One facet of this problem is the law surrounding advertising to children. An ethical society concerned about the values and healthy development of children would largely ban advertising to children. The opposite ethos prevails in the U.S.

    In 2009 child health and nutrition experts were appointed by congress to establish guidelines for advertising foods to children. The 2011 report said:

    “The guidelines said that foods advertised to children must provide “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” For example, any food marketed to children must “contain at least 50% by weight one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans.”

    Dollar signs in their eyes, the food giants were able to get the report withdrawn.

    Or, take the case in 2003 of corporate lobbyists ensuring that the World Health Organization didn’t base its dietary guidelines on the best science, but on what would help profits and Wall Street investors.

    “The sugar industry in the US is threatening to bring the World Health Organisation to its knees by demanding that Congress end its funding unless the WHO scraps guidelines on healthy eating, due to be published on Wednesday.

    The threat is being described by WHO insiders as tantamount to blackmail and worse than any pressure exerted by the tobacco lobby.”

    Increased dietary sugar doesn’t happen by accident or by personal choice alone. It’s the result of multiple factors, one of which is the dubious and even criminal interventions by big food corporations.

    What readers need to know are answers to the following kinds of questions:

    -To what extent are U.S. and WHO dietary guidelines corrupted by corporate influence?
    -To what extent is the nutritional quality of public school lunch programs undermined by corporate pressure?
    -How often are national health guidelines attacked by transnational corporations as impediments to increasing their market?
    -What role have MN based companies, like General Mills for example, played to undermine public health, dietary guidelines, nutrition standards, etc., either through individual action or through their trade groups?
    -What influence does Big Food have right now in the state legislature? Are ideals of public health being served or undermined by large food corporations?

    Let’s get to the root of these problems.

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