Bitter Sweet

Bitter Sweet: How Artificial Sweeteners Are Not Acceptable Alternatives to Sugar

In the war on the nation’s sugar intakes, public health officials and the Government have placed voluntary reformulation at the heart of their activity. However, new research from Dr Judy Swift’s research team at the University of Nottingham has demonstrated that public perceptions do not necessarily align with these public health messages.

All artificial sweeteners – the industry prefers to call them low calorie sweeteners – used in food production in Europe today have been subjected to rigorous safety testing, and are used in a wide range of foods, drinks, and even medicines.

Diet versions of fizzy drinks (referred to a sugar-sweetened beverages by researchers) are endorsed by health experts to encourage weight loss as they offer a useful compromise when tap water is unacceptable. Furthermore, current advice from Public Health England is to make ‘food smart swaps’ such as chilled deserts to sugar-free jelly, and fizzy drinks to juice-drinks (no added sugar).

However, research carried out by Dr Swift and her team suggests that artificial sweeteners are not considered a healthy choice.

In one study , which utilised data from digital spaces including open forums on Mumsnet, artificial sweeteners were described as “fake” and “far worse than sugar” while others stated that “I’d rather sugar than artificial sweeteners…” In addition, a strong theme emerged around distrust of the public health officials, the Government, the food industry and retailers in relation to public health sugar reduction efforts. {Update 05/04/17: a manuscript detailing this research is currently under review, Swift JA, Strathearn L, Morris A, Townsend T, Pearce J. Public perceptions of the United Kingdom’s public health sugar reduction efforts in digital spaces: a mixed methods study. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.}

In another experiment, which allowed participants to select from a range of different product scenarios, artificial sweeteners were considered unhealthier than sugar, maple syrup and honey:

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This is perhaps unsurprising as we have a tendency to favour the natural over the artificial; the ‘wisdom of nature’ heuristic. After all, nature is the result of eons of natural selection and therefore must be perfectly adapted.

It does, however, mean that innovations by the food industry may not be as well received as anticipated. It also underlines just how important it is that the health experts work with the concerns of the public when seeking to change behaviour, regardless of whether they agree or not.

Judy Swift, 29th March 2017

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