More sweeteners in New Zealand’s food supply

More sweeteners in New Zealand’s food supply

High sugar intake is associated with adverse health outcomes. Therefore, consumers are demanding products with a lower sugar content. One way the food industry may respond is to replace sugar with other sweeteners. The National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland undertook a study to investigate the change in non-nutritive sweeteners in New Zealand’s food supply from 2013 to 2019 [1]. The study investigated the type and prevalence of non-nutritive sweetener used in packaged food and beverages.

Why do the study?

Excess sugar in the diet is strongly associated with increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and tooth decay. The New Zealand dietary guidelines recommend foods and beverages with little or no added sugar yet sugar intake in New Zealand exceeds the World Health Organization recommendations particularly in adults under 50 years (refer blog on Sugar and NZ children and Kibblewhite et al [2]). The main contributors of total sugars in the New Zealand diet were fruits, non-alcoholic beverages and sugar and sweets [3]. Public health strategies have been applied to increase consumer awareness to the link between excess sugar consumption and poor health and to encourage the population to reduce the consumption of high sugar foods. The food industry has responded by replacing added sugars with non-nutritive and low-calorie sweeteners. These foods are likely to be labelled as ‘diet’, ‘low-calorie’, ‘lite’ or ‘sugar-free’.

Sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners are similar in their ability to sweeten foods but non-nutritive sweeteners are able to do this without increasing the energy value or the glycaemic index of the food thus not affecting body size or insulin levels.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand assess the safety of non-nutritive sweeteners (they use the term intense sweeteners) before they are added to food to ensure they are safe at the levels added to foods and that there is a technological purpose for their addition of foods. In addition, sweeteners must be listed in the ingredients list of all packaged foods. While the global consumption of sweeteners is within an acceptable range it is important to monitor the variety of foods containing non-nutritive sweeteners. This study aimed to determine the prevalence and types of non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged food products in New Zealand in 2013 and 2019.

  • the frequency of non-nutritive sweeteners in packaged New Zealand foods has increased from 3% to 5%.
  • the most common non-nutritive sweeteners are stevia, acesulphame-potassium, sucralose and aspartame.
  • non-nutritive sweeteners are commonly found in ‘non-alcoholic beverages’ and ‘special foods’.
drawing of a supermarket featuring vegetables and shelves of product
Shopping after work by Andreea (print available from society6)

How was this done?

The Nutritrack database contains ingredient information on packaged food items in New Zealand for 2013 and 2019. Nutritrack was searched for food items containing non-nutritive sweeteners (Table 1) in their ingredients list in 2013 and 2019. Packaged food items were grouped into major food categories which included ‘bread and bakery’, ‘cereal and cereal products’, ‘confectionery’, ‘convenience foods’, ‘dairy’, ‘fish and seafood products’, ‘fruit and vegetables’, ‘meat and meat products’, ‘non-alcoholic beverages’, ‘sauces and spreads’, ‘snack foods’, ‘special foods’, ‘sugars, honey, and related products’. The ‘special foods’ category includes breakfast beverages, diet drink mixes, diet soup mixes, other fitness, or diet products (including table-top sweeteners), protein and diet bars, protein powders, and sports gels.

Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
950 Acesulphame potassium
951 Aspartame
952 Cyclamate 952
954 Saccharin
955 Sucralose
956 Alitame
957 Thaumatin
960 Stevia (steviol glycosides)
961 Neotame
962 Aspartame-acesulphame salt
969 Advantame
Monk fruit extract
Table 1: non-nutritive sweeteners recorded in Nutritrack

The data was analysed using Chi-square tests which compared the proportions on food items containing non-nutritive sweeteners in each food category between 2013 and 2019.

What was found?

Between 2013 and 2019 the use of non-nutritive sweeteners in the New Zealand food and beverages increased from 3% to 5% or from 378 to 761 food items. This is a significant change (p<0.001) and was seen mainly in the food categories ‘cereal and cereal products’, ‘dairy’, ‘non-alcoholic beverages’ and ‘special foods’.

‘Cereal and cereal products’ and ‘dairy’ food categories had small but significant increases between 2013 and 2019. The number of food items containing non-nutritive sweeteners in these categories was 3% of less.

The number of items in the food category, ‘non-alcoholic beverages’, increased 36% from 1104 to 1505 food items between 2013 and 2019. The number of items containing a non-nutritive sweetener in ‘non-alcoholic beverages’ increased 111% from 175 to 370 food items (Figure 1). The main driver behind the increase was likely consumer demand for lower sugar drink options, particularly soft drinks where almost half of soft drinks contain non-nutritive sweeteners.

Graph showing changes in New Zealand foods (non-alcoholic beverages) with non-nutritive sweeteners
Figure 1: The number of food items in ‘Non-alcoholic beverages’ increased from 1104 to 1505 over 6 years. In 2013 16% (175 items) of ‘Non-alcoholic beverages’ contained non-nutritive sweeteners. This increased to 25% (370 items) in 2019.
NNS = non-nutritive sweetener.
Data adapted from Nunn 2021 [1].

The food category, ‘special foods’ contains protein and diet bars, protein powders and diet drink mixes. The number of items in ‘special foods’ increased 51% from 161 to 243 between 2013 and 2019. The number of items containing a non-nutritive sweetener in ‘special foods’ increased 127% from 52 to 118 food items (Figure 2) with the largest changes being in protein and diet bars which is driven by a the growing demand for protein-rich and low or no added sugar nutritional supplements. Sucralose remained the predominant non-nutritive sweeteners ingredient in ‘special foods’ and used in proportionately more ‘special foods’ (p=0.004).

Graph showing changes in New Zealand foods (special foods) with non-nutritive sweeteners
Figure 2: ‘Special foods’ (protein and diet bars, protein powders and diet drink mixes) had 49% of its 243 food items (or 118 food items) containing non-nutritive sweeteners in 2019. This is up from 32% in 2013.
NNS = non-nutritive sweetener.
Data adapted from Nunn 2021 [1].

While the number of food items in ‘confectionery’, ‘eggs’ and ‘snack foods’ categories increased by more than 30%, the percentage of items using non-nutritive sweetener in these categories did not increase substantially.

Two thirds of all food items using non-nutritive sweeteners used one non-nutritive sweeteners whereas the remaining third contained 2 to 5 non-nutritive sweetener ingredients. The most commonly used non-nutritive sweeteners in 2019 were stevia, sucralose, and acesulphame-potassium.

Stevia showed the largest increase in use [0.5% (of all 12,153 products) in 2013 to 2.3% (of all 14,645 products) in 2019] but the authors did not report if this was a statistically significant change or just a trend. The increased use of stevia as a non-nutritive sweetener was observed in ‘confectionery’, ‘dairy’, ‘non-alcoholic beverages’ and ‘special foods’. Stevia become the prominent non-nutritive sweetener ingredient in 2019 replacing acesulphame-potassium in 2013. The use of naturally occurring sweeteners is favoured over ‘artificial’ sweeteners. Stevia has knocked aspartame from the top 3 in 2013. This is a similar trend seen in the USA.

Stevia, derived from the leaves of the South American plant stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, is considered by consumers as a ‘natural’ sweetener and may be preferred over ‘artificial’ sweeteners. Another ‘natural’ sweetener observed in the 2019 data was monk fruit extract (luo han guo extract), derived from the fruit of Siraitia grosvenorii, a perennial vine native to Southern China. In 2013, this sweetener was not used in any NutriTrack products however in 2019 25 products in the NutriTrack database contained monk fruit extract.

supermarket shelf products snacks beverage
Print by Etnousta (society6)

What do the authors say?

The use of non-nutritive sweeteners in New Zealand’s food supply is increasing. Though this New Zealand study did not have sales data, data from the USA and Norway suggest the consumption of products containing non-nutritive sweeteners is increasing.

The evidence relating to the consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners and their benefit or harm is conflicting [4]. A meta-analysis and systematic review [4] found small beneficial effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on BMI and fasting blood glucose but not body weight, oral health, eating behaviours, cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, mood or neurocognition. This meta-analysis covered 56 studies and the author reported the level of evidence was low or very low leaving the question still open – does the use of non-nutritive sweeteners benefit or harm our health?

The food industry plays a key role in population health. Currently, the food industry swaps sugar for non-nutritive sweeteners. Another approach could be where the food industry gradually reduces the level of sugar (and salt) in foods, thereby allowing the population to accept a lower level of sugar and sweetness in their foods. Successful government led programs have reduced the level of salt (see Project Salt Incognito) and sugar in some processed food categories in the United Kingdom. The authors suggest a New Zealand government led reformulation program to reduce sugar levels in foods and drinks can assist in reducing the sugar intakes of the New Zealand people.

  1. Nunn R, Young L, and Ni Mhurchu C. (2021) Prevalence and types of non-nutritive sweeteners in the New Zealand food supply, 2013 and 2019. Nutrients, 13, 3228. doi: 10.3390/nu13093228.
  2. Kibblewhite R, Nettleton A, McLean R, Haszard J, Fleming E, Kruimer D, and Te Morenga L. (2017) Estimating free and added sugar intakes in New Zealand. Nutrients, 9, 1292. doi: 10.3390/nu9121292.
  3. University of Otago and Ministry of Health. (2011) A focus on nutrition: key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey, Wellington: Ministry of Health.
  4. Toews I, Lohner S, Küllenberg de Gaudry D, Sommer H, & Meerpohl J. (2019) Association between intake of non-sugar sweeteners and health outcomes: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised and non-randomised controlled trials and observational studies. BMJ, 364, k4718. doi: 10.1136/bmj.k4718.

Characteristics of study : Prevalence and types of non-nutritive sweeteners in the New Zealand food supply, 2013 and 2019

Study Authors

Rachel Nunn

Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences,
University of Auckland

Leanne Young

National Institute for Health Innovation,
University of Auckland

Cliona Ni Mhurchu

National Institute for Health Innovation, University of Auckland
The George Institute for Global Health, Sydney
Department of Medicine, University of New South Wales

Funders*

R Nunn was funded by a Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland Summer Research Scholarship, grant number MHS190.
L Young is funded by the National Heart Foundation of New Zealand fellowship, grant number 1830.

Disclosures

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

* The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results.


More resources

Health promotion agency : Behind the hype: Sweeteners – two-page information sheets containing evidence-based advice about non-nutritive sweeteners.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand : Intense Sweeteners – How are intense sweeteners assess for safety?

Ministry for Primary Industries : Sweeteners in food – sweeteners, why they’re used and how they affect health


Keywords: artificial sweeteners, cardiovascular disease, CVD, food, food supply, National Institute for Health Innovation, monk fruit extract, New Zealand, non-nutritive sweeteners, nutrition, nutritional science, NutriTrack, packaged foods, stevia, sweetened beverages, University of Auckland


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: