Sweet Deception: Why Artificial Sweeteners May Be Hiding in Your Food

As our country continues to face an obesity and diabetes crisis, food companies are under great pressure to reduce the excessive use of sugar and calories in their products.  For industry, this generally means replacing natural sweeteners with artificial ones, rather than decreasing the use of sweeteners all together.  Companies are starting to sneak artificial sweeteners into all types of products, including those intended for children, and they aren’t very eager to tell you that they are doing it.

Just last month, a controversial petition was submitted to the FDA by the Dairy Industry requesting that flavored milk be exempt from labeling standards which require companies to disclose the use of artificial sweeteners.  Currently, products containing artificial sweeteners must be labeled with what the FDA calls, ‘nutrient content claims.’  These are phrases such as  ‘reduced calorie’ or ‘no added sugar’ which are placed on the front of the package in addition to displaying which sweeteners are used in the ingredients list on the back of the package. Below is an example of the current standard vs. what the Dairy Industry wants:

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This issue was particularly alarming to parents, because it was the  Dairy Industry’s belief that these claims may deter children from wanting to drink the artificially sweetened milk that caused them to make the request.  The FDA has just begun reviewing comments from industry and consumers about the issue, thus a decision is still in the works, but the concept and subsequent controversy has really got me thinking about the increased use of these sweeteners in general.

The following words and phrases are those commonly used on of the front of food packages to denote the use of artificial sweeteners in a product:

‘reduced calorie’
‘no added sugar’
‘sugar-free’
‘diet’
‘light’

Why don’t companies just label the products, “sweetened with artificial sweeteners”? Is that just too honest? Or is it because the food industry knows that many consumers want to avoid these sweeteners, so they would rather work with the FDA to create positive sounding (and arguably VERY misleading) claims that avoid using the word ‘artificial’?

To add to the confusion, some claims like “no added sugar” don’t always mean the same thing for every product.  Sometimes it means the product contains artificial sweeteners instead of sugar; sometimes it means there are no added sweeteners whatsoever.  It is not the same thing as “sugar-free”, however, as products with the “no added sugar” claim also usually contain naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit or dairy products. Confused yet? You are not alone.

Not only do many consumers not understand the meaning behind these claims on the front of the package, but for those wanting to abstain from artificial sweeteners, looking to the ingredients label on the back of the package can be just as confusing.  Many people are familiar with the common brand names for artificial sweeteners such as Equal, Sweet N’ Low, and Splenda but these names usually won’t be found in the list of ingredients. Instead, companies list the generic names, like these:

Sucralose
Aspartame
Acesulfame K (or Acesulfame Potassium)
Saccharin
Neotame

The Sugar Association conducted a poll which showed that when the generic term for an artificial sweetener is used, unsurprisingly, consumer recognition declines.

While the research surrounding the long-term use of artificial sweeteners is inconclusive, surveys have shown that many Americans still feel it is important to know what sweeteners are being used when they purchase foods and beverages.   The current practice of using misleading claims (or no claims at all), and unfamiliar generic terminology is unfair to those consumers.

If you are curious  about which foods and beverages these sweeteners are hiding in, I took a quick look through the  grocery store to see where I could find them.  This is certainly not an all inclusive list; artificial sweeteners are currently found in over 6,000 products. But, some of these might surprise you!

Bread Products

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Thomas’ Light Multi-grain English Muffins

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Sara Lee Delightful 100% Whole Wheat Bread with Honey

Juice Products

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Capri-Sun Roarin’ Waters

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Ocean Spray Light

Fruit Products

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Breyer’s Pure Fruit Bars

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Musselman’s Lite Applesauce

Dairy Products

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Dreyer’s Slow Churned ‘No Sugar Added’ Ice Cream

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Dannon Light and Fit Yogurt

Breakfast Products

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Quaker High Fiber Oatmeal

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Special K Protein

Snack Products

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Quaker ‘25% Less Sugar’ Chewy Bars

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Jolly Time Healthy Pop Kettle Corn

Other Products

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Tylenol Sinus

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Vlasic ‘No Sugar Added’ Bread and Butter Pickles

Public Health Campaigns Tackling Childhood Obesity: The Bad vs. The Good

Last year, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta released a highly controversial anti-obesity ad campaign aimed at parents of overweight and obese children.  While the ads were meant to draw attention to the childhood obesity epidemic, their effectiveness was called into question by many parents and health experts, myself included.  The intentions of CHOA may have been good, but the campaign seemed much more likely to increase stigmatization against overweight children and make them feel ashamed of their bodies, rather than encourage healthy habits.

Here is an example of one of their ads, in case you missed it.

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In response to this campaign, Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research and weight stigma at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale stated , “Messages that focus on promoting specific health behaviors are likely to be more effective” than messages focused on weight.

Which is exactly what Contra Costa County is doing with their newly released ad campaign:

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For several reasons, I love this campaign.

First, as mentioned above, it focuses on a single health behavior, reducing children’s consumption of sugary drinks.

Second, it is clearly targeting juice ‘drinks’, as opposed to soda (which most parents know isn’t healthy).  Juice products, even those with added sugar and artificial sweeteners, have developed a health halo in America, thanks in part to some strategic marketing by the food and beverage industry. Sure, a small amount of 100% juice is fine for kids every once in awhile, but juice provides a high amount of calories packed into a small portion and lacks the fiber and nutrients that whole fruit provides.

I also like that the campaign mentions all of the issues associated with over-consumption of sugary drinks including cavities, weight gain, and chronic disease.

While the effectiveness of mass media public health campaigns varies, at least this sets a positive example for other organizations looking to develop something similar for their own communities.

The government’s ‘cheesy’ advice

Last week, I was given the opportunity to attend a presentation at Yale University by New York Times investigative reporter and best-selling author, Michael Moss.  If you haven’t read his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, I highly recommend it. Or, if you are short on time, check out Moss’s New York Times article, The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.  Both take a deep look at the history of the processed food industry, and how their use of salt, sugar, and fat has contributed to the obesity epidemic.

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While I consider myself to be relatively knowledgeable about the ties between the government and Big Food, Moss introduced a video during his presentation that had even my jaw hitting the floor. See for yourself:

This video is just one example of our flawed food system.  How can a single agency, like the USDA, be responsible for both the promotion of commodity foods and the delivery of dietary guidance, when these two responsibilities are so conflicting?  You can’t really expect the USDA to tell Americans to reduce their consumption of a basic commodity, like cheese, when it is also their job to make sure we are eating as much as possible. Instead, as Michael Moss notes, they hand out convoluted advice like this, ‘When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet’. Adding cheese to virtually every type of processed food the industry can think of, is definitely not a good exercise in moderation.

I started learning about these agency conflicts of interest while I was in grad school, and have since become a huge advocate for moving the responsibility of providing nutrition and dietary advice from the USDA to an unbiased agency such as the Institute of Medicine.  I think the public would be shocked to discover the changes that would be made to MyPlate guidelines, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and even our food assistance programs like SNAP and the National School Lunch Program if an outside agency that wasn’t polluted by corporate interests were to take on the roll. 24sugar1-articleLarge-v3

Coca-Cola and the fight against obesity

Over the last few weeks, the soda giant, Coca-Cola has been all over the media touting their new commitment in the fight against obesity. Is this a real attempt at being part of the solution or just a public relations stunt to dodge criticism of their sugary, obesigenic products? My guess is the latter.

Let’s take a look at their efforts.

First, Coke released a few commercials such as this, putting all the focus of the obesity problem on individuals and their lack of physical activity.  Note: there is not a single obese person is this commercial:

Next, Coke introduced this infographic, which blames obesity on our consumption of chicken dishes, grain based desserts, and breads, conveniently leaving out the fourth biggest calorie contributor to the American diet: You guessed it, sugar-sweetened beverages.  It also focuses on the old, outdated concept that all calories are created equal, and that calories-in vs. calories-out equates to weight loss. As a registered dietitian, I can assure you that there is a big difference between consuming 100 calories worth of the hyperprocessed carbohydrates found in soda, and 100 calories worth of high-fiber fruit or beans.

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Then, just a few weeks ago, Coke began to lay out the details of their new global obesity-fighting campaign.  This plan includes:

  • Offering low or no-calorie beverage options in every market
  • Making calories more visible on the front of the bottle
  • Stopping advertising to children under 12 everywhere in the world (for years they have claimed to already be doing this in the US, though it has been proven that they are not very good at at it)
  • Promoting exercise and healthy lifestyles

Coke’s website indicates a few examples of these efforts to promote physical activity:

  • Coke will give out Coca-Cola branded soccer balls at major events
  • Coke will distribute pedometers via their MyCokeRewards program
  • Coke is asking families to be active, by turning fitness activities into votes for parks to win recreation grants
  • Coca-Cola “happiness trucks” will drive around “inspiring people to get on their feet and move to the beat” by playing music at dance and fitness events across the country
  • Sponsoring a youth baseball clinic

I would argue that at least half of these supposed “commitments to contribute to health” easily qualify as more marketing for Coke. Furthermore, none of these efforts address the real issue: Americans consume too many calories from sugary drinks.

If Coca-Cola REALLY wanted to be part of the anti-obesity solution, they could:

  • Reduce portion sizes instead of lobbying against efforts like the one introduced by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City.
  • Support soda taxes
  • Stop fighting attempts to remove vending machines and soda marketing in schools
  • Stop infiltrating professional health organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics with biased research that ignores the proven link between sugar-sweetened beverages and poor health outcomes.

But, why would they? Their business is to sell more Coke.

As if you needed any more reasons to call this campaign a sham, I’ll give you three:

1. Coke continues to form partnerships, encouraging the consumption of excessive amounts of sugary soda.

2. Coke finds sneaky ways to disguise more marketing as an act of philanthropy.

3. Coke’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, participated in this VERY uncomfortable interview with CBS, where he seems to be having trouble answering basic questions about the controversy surrounding their anti-obesity campaign.