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World's diet is getting sweeter, catching up with US

Scientists find developing countries consuming more sugar as packaged food sales rise; taxes proposed as solution

The global diet is getting sweeter, with developing countries following the trend in wealthier nations like the United States in their taste for added sugar, particularly when it comes to the rising consumption of soft drinks.

That was the conclusion reached by public health experts who published an op-ed Tuesday in the journal The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. The article by Barry Popkin, a professor at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Corinna Hawkes, a professor at the Center for Food Policy at City University London, analyzed new data on international trends in sugar-sweetened beverages and explored policies to curb the problem.

“The evaluation of not only sugar taxes, but also new marketing controls and front-of-pack labeling, is important and represents one of the next frontiers— namely, can these policies effectively reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and intake of total added sugars?” the authors wrote.

They analyzed data gathered by Nielsen Homescan Service, tracking purchases of “barcoded” food — meaning food sold in packages — by U.S. households in 2000, 2006 and 2013. They found that 68 percent of the packaged foods and beverages bought in the U.S. contained added sugar, and 74 percent had both sugar and low-calorie sweeteners. They noted that there was a  “significant increase” in the proportion of sugar-sweetened products, especially beverages, bought in that period. The paper didn’t include exact percentage increases.

There was also a significant increase in purchases of packaged foods and beverages with no added sweeteners in the same time span, the authors found, to 30 percent of all Americans’ food calories and 37 percent of all beverage calories in 2013. They said this finding supports earlier studies that showed the total intake of added sugars in the American diet has declined since 2000, with much of shift caused by a reduction in the consumption of sugary beverages.

They note that the U.S. “supermarket-based system” of food supply, which is dominated by packaged rather than fresh foods, is being adopted by developing countries. That means other regions of the world may also see marked expansion of sugar consumption in the form of packaged foods and drinks.

To see if that trend is already taking hold, the authors analyzed data on the consumption of drinks with added sugar across the world between 2009 and 2014. They found that North America, Latin America, Australasia and Western Europe were the regions that drank the most.

Three of the top six countries that drank the most sugar-sweetened beverages — Chile, Mexico and Argentina — were in Latin America. The remaining three were the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Germany.

Sales of sugary beverages were on the decline in North America, Western Europe and Australasia — but they rose in every other part of the world. In North America, as researchers have previously noted, sales of soft drinks with added sugars declined significantly in the past few years, but sales of sports and energy drinks have risen to compensate.

In countries such as China, sales of sugar-sweetened drinks have increased sharply since 2000, and the authors predict that beverage marketers will focus on developing countries as consumption falls in countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

In the face of the World Health Organization’s recent dietary recommendation that people limit added sugars to 10 percent of their total daily calories, many governments are exploring measures to control people’s sugar consumption, such as taxes, public health campaigns and cutting availability of sugary foods in schools.

A total of 49 countries have adopted policy actions to curb sugar consumption, the authors found. Levying taxes on beverages with added sugar was the most common tactic and was used by Chile, Finland, France, Hungary and Mexico as well as the Navajo Nation and the city of Berkeley, California.

The taxes appear to be working. In Hungary, for example, data has shown a 3.5 percent decrease in purchases of processed foods and a 1.1 percent increase in purchases of unprocessed food after the tax was introduced in 2012, the authors wrote. In Mexico, the changes have been more dramatic. Across the country there was a 6 percent decline in purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages in 2014 compared to before the tax. By the end of 2014, the decline had reached 12 percent, but it was even greater in lower socioeconomic groups.

Randomized controlled studies have linked the drinking of sugar-sweetened drinks in children and adolescents to “excessive weight gain,” and scientists say that excessive consumption of added sugar leads to metabolic problems like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

“In theory, the longer-term effect could be even greater if taxes affect people’s long-term preferences and move their habits away from the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages,” the authors said. “However, this assumption does not account for changes in industry behavior in response to taxation policies, so the long-term effects are difficult to predict.”

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