Healthy sweetness makes progress amidst loose regulations and more empowered consumers

We live in changing times in which obesity persists but the knowledge of science and our tools to counteract it are also changing. We are gaining more and more clarity on habits that, when combined with diets, achieve concrete nutritional goals.
Despite years of new labeling rules, obesity continues to be a serious problem in Latin America. In Chile, 25.4% of children are obese, while in Mexico, 70% of the population is overweight and almost a third is obese. The WHO has warned that this problem not only affects individual health, but also has a significant economic impact.
In Chile, the purchase of products with warning labels has generated a change in demand in some categories. The per capita purchase per day of calories, sodium, sugars, saturated fats of “HIGH EN” products was reduced by 23.8%, 36.7%, 26.7% and 15.7%, respectively. This constitutes an important impact on the type of products consumers choose, but does not seem to have a high impact on health as a consequence of these decisions. Obesity in Chile remains among the highest in the OECD. In 2020, under COVID, childhood obesity rose to 25.4% from 23.5% according to JUNAEB, with the law in full force and maturity. Considering that the Front End Labeling Law had been active for more than 4 years at that date, it is a discouraging result on the outcome of such an isolated measure.
A little later than Chile, Peru (2019), Mexico (2020), Uruguay (2020) and Argentina (2021) implemented similar regulations. Within these cases, Mexico and Argentina incorporated the warning legend on the use of sweeteners. It is important to mention that this legend integrates all sweeteners into an indistinct category. To enter this category, a characteristic defined as follows must be met: “substances other than monosaccharides and disaccharides, which impart a sweet taste to products” NOM 51 Secretaría de Salud Mexico.
The law does not consider the chemical structure of the different sweetener molecules, their caloric contribution, the body’s ability to metabolize them, ferment them or literature that associates them with specific health risks, even though they are all compounds that have been approved by strict processes that have carried out in-depth meta-study analyses that address the health risk of these compounds for all age groups. Moreover, despite the fact that there are no studies, for example, showing any negative effect of Stevia on children’s health, it has been included in the warning legend.
In a similar vein, the WHO has issued a report in 2023 in which it advises against the use of non-caloric sweeteners, including Stevia for weight control or weight reduction. It indicates that they may be related to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality in adults. To date, there is no reference in the literature that associates the consumption of Stevia to any cardiovascular disease. It is possible that this scientific confusion with regulatory consequences, together with the absence of a more holistic view of the importance of associating habits such as exercise to diet, are the main causes of the failure of these measures in the control of obesity and diabetes.
Experts agree that the solution is not limited to labels. Changes in eating habits and greater scientific backing for regulations are needed.
But the power of consumers to take change into their own hands is growing. There is growing awareness of the power of respecting the Circadian rhythm in eating and sleeping habits, and awareness of how these influence chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity. We are also becoming more aware of the impact of moderate exercise and its frequency, and its impact on the reduction of heart disease and general wellbeing.
In the case of the United States, “traditional diets” are being questioned and alternatives are being sought, such as the “Dietary Guidelines”, which have succeeded in changing the diet of 30 million children. These diets, which gained popularity between 2022 and 2023, have not continued to grow, as they are considered unpalatable or appear to have a poor taste profile by consumers. This has generated a rebound and consumers are now looking for less processed diets again, even if they have a slightly higher sugar or carbohydrate content.
Likewise, as we mentioned, diets that involve a change in consumer habits are gaining ground, such as intermittent fasting, promoted by many opinion leaders in health and nutrition. This initiative involves going 16 hours of the day without consuming caloric foods. This initiative is of special interest, as it is a scientifically supported strategy that is gaining ground and involves a powerful edge, which is the change of consumer habits. According to the IFIC (International Food Information Council), approximately 10% of Americans between 18 and 80 years of age use intermittent fasting as a technique to improve their health.
In the same direction, the diet of the consumer profile that is more informed and tends to a healthy and sporty life, incorporates in their daily consumption products high in protein, a macronutrient deficient in most adults. This includes the consumption of beverages with 25 to 30 g of protein per serving to achieve the consumption of at least 1 g of protein per kg of body weight, which is usually coupled with a sweetness that allows a product of this type to be more palatable. A challenge of this type requires that the use of sweetener in the product must be consistent and tend toward the natural. Similar challenges are found in many of the functional beverages that are beginning to flood the market today, which include challenges associated with taste when using vitamins, minerals or any of the functional compounds that promote health or “bio hacking”.
On market trends
Considering these trends, which include sugar reduction and utilizing the occasion of beverage consumption to incorporate some functional health benefit, the steady growth of Stevia and Mogrosides and a reduction of artificial sweeteners in the food industry is understandable. Stevia continues its 9% annual growth, while the use of sucralose, aspartame, cyclamate and acesulfame K is declining or stagnating.
It is not only the use of individual natural intense sweeteners that is growing, but also the formulations. Particularly when looking at the advancement of sugar substitution in confectionery and bakery products, there is an increase in the use of Erythritol in conjunction with Stevia or Monk Fruit as a bulk sweetener. This sweetener blend has no calories and no negative health effects, making it an ideal alternative for people with diabetes or seeking weight control. And the alternative of using Maltitol and Isomalt is stalled due to its metabolic by-products and potential laxative effect.
In the case of Allulose, another actively growing compound, it is mainly used in bakery products or in products that require high solubility. Its sugar-like taste and health-promoting properties make it an attractive option for the food industry. Tagatose also remains a niche product, both because of its high cost and because of its FDA qualification as a caloric sugar.
This trend towards natural and healthy sweeteners is good news for consumers looking for healthier options to sugar. However, we must make a call to action as we need to educate the population about the importance of a healthy diet; fund studies that investigate the effects of sweeteners on health; refine regulations that include sweeteners; and finally, we believe that fostering collaboration between governments, industry and science must be part of the joint solutions to the problem of obesity.