Perspectives: Measuring Sweetness in Foods, Beverages, and Diets: Towards Understanding the Role of Sweetness in Health

CITATION & LINK: Advances in Nutrition. 2020; 00:1-12

AUTHORS: Paula R. Trumbo, Katherine M. Appleton, Kees de Graaf, John E. Hayes, David J. Baer, Gary K. Beauchamp, Johanna T. Dwyer, John D. Fernstrom, David M. Klurfeld, Richard D. Mattes, Paul M. Wise

REVIEWER: Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN

This narrative review adds critical information to our understanding of the relationship between our exposure to sweet tasting foods and beverages and their impact on diet quality and body weight. In particular, it seeks to investigate the long-standing position held by many global health agencies that overexposure to sweetness in the diet produces changes in the perception of and preference for sweet tasting foods and beverages which leads to their excess consumption and negative health outcomes.

Belief in this chain of events is the basis for the widespread recommendations to reduce the sugar content of the diet, in many cases regardless of the source of the sweetness. The expectation is that this will blunt the likelihood of developing a preference for sweets and thereby diminish the consumption of excess calories that lead to weight gain. This hypothesis, however, is not supported by empirical evidence.

What is lacking is the proof that consuming a certain amount of sweet tasting foods can produce a subsequent preference for and overconsumption of more sweet foods and the proof that consuming lesser amounts of sweet foods will result in lower caloric intake and decreased body weight.

What is needed to support this hypothesis are (1) an effective way to measure of the sweetness of the entire diet or dietary pattern, not just the sweetness of specific foods and beverages, and (2) a reliable, affordable, and easy way to measure human perception of sweetness in foods and beverages. This paper examines the available research for both objectives, and the authors conclude there are significant challenges in each pursuit. Several critical questions must be answered before researchers can begin to combine data from different studies and populations. These include “How sweetness should be defined,” “How can quantitative data on sweetness from individual foods be translated to the sweetness of a meal, entire diet, or dietary pattern?,” and “Are different ratings of sweetness due to differences in how a person perceives sweetness or how the person uses the sweetness rating tool/scale?” Only then will we be able to understand the role, if any, of sweet-tasting foods, beverages, and diets on food preferences, energy intake, and health-related outcomes, such as obesity and dental caries.

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