Perspective: Measuring Sweetness in Foods, Beverages, and Diets: Toward Understanding the Role of Sweetness in Health

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Author(s): Trumbo PR, Appleton KM, de Graaf K, Hayes JE, Baer DJ, Beauchamp GK, Dwyer JT, Fernstrom JD, Klurfeld DM, Mattes RD, Wise PM.
Publication name: Advances in Nutrition 2020 Dec 3; nmaa151. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmaa151.
Publication year: 2020

Abstract

Various global public health agencies recommend minimizing exposure to sweet-tasting foods or beverages. The underlying rationale is that reducing exposure to the perception of sweet tastes, without regard to the source of sweetness, may reduce preferences for sweetness, added sugar intake, caloric intake, and body weight. However, the veracity of this sequence of outcomes has yet to be documented, as revealed by findings from recent systematic reviews on the topic. Efforts to examine and document the effects of sweetness exposure are needed to support evidence-based recommendations. They require a generally agreed-upon methodology for measuring sweetness in foods, beverages, and the overall diet. Although well-established sensory evaluation techniques exist for individual foods in laboratory settings, they are expensive and time-consuming, and agreement on the optimal approach for measuring the sweetness of the total diet is lacking. If such a measure could be developed, it would permit researchers to combine data from different studies and populations and facilitate the design and conduct of new studies to address unresolved research questions about dietary sweetness. This narrative review includes an overview of available sensory techniques, their strengths and limitations, recent efforts to measure the sweetness of foods and diets across countries and cultures, and a proposed future direction for improving methods for measuring sweetness toward developing the data required to support evidence-based recommendations around dietary sweetness.

Summary

The present review authored by a group of leading nutrition researchers on sensory science concludes that agreement on the optimal approach for measuring the sweetness of the total diet is needed to facilitate the design and conduct of studies that would address unresolved research questions regarding dietary sweetness in foods and diets and health outcomes.

The notion proposed by some governments and influential health organisations supporting that recommending diets low in sweetness would reduce preference and intakes of sweet foods/ drinks, which in turn would lead to a reduction of energy intake and weight loss is not supported by current scientific evidence. The authors of this review state that no link in this proposed causal chain has strong empirical support. For example, a systematic review by Appleton et al (2018) provided no consistent support for a relation between sweet taste exposure and subsequent preferences or subsequent sweet food intake. Public Health England (2015) reached a similar conclusion based on a literature review.

As measuring the sweetness of entire diets is challenging, a generally agreed-upon and validated measure of dietary sweetness is needed in order to address these unresolved research questions about dietary sweetness and health outcomes. The review finally includes a proposed future direction for improving methods for measuring sweetness toward developing the data required to support evidence-based recommendations around dietary sweetness.

This review includes information shared in a meeting, “Think Tank: Measuring Sweetness in Foods, Beverages and Diets,” organised by ILSI North America on 12 December 2019.

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