38% urban Indians surveyed confirm consuming foods with artificial sweeteners each month; 91% want food brands to display usage of artificial sweeteners on front of the pack
- ● 1 in 3 of those consuming artificial sweeteners do so in the form of diet soda drinks, sugar free gums
- ● 26% consumers of such products consume them in the form of energy drinks
- ● 18% of those surveyed take artificial sweeteners in the form of sugarfree chocolates, ice-creams
July 15, 2023, New Delhi: International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer research arm, has for the first time stated that aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener used in food products like diet soda, sugar-free gums, etc., should be categorized as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. While sounding the alarm, IARC has not ruled that there is conclusive proof of a link between aspartame and liver cancer, as some research papers have suggested. Several regulatory bodies have stressed that if used within certain guidelines aspartame is safe for human consumption. A team of WHO experts, who had done a separate risk assessment on aspartame, also stated on July 13, that WHO’s own guidelines do not need to change.
In May this year, WHO had warned against artificial sweeteners stating that these products do not help in weight loss and can in fact increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The WHO report based on over 280 studies suggested that “non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) should not be used as a means of achieving weight control or reducing the risk of non-communicable diseases.” The IARC ruling, finalised in June after a meeting of the group's external experts, is based on all the published evidence thereby ending confusion among the public over varied reports. The IARC's rulings can have a huge impact. Since 1981, JECFA has said aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. For example, an adult weighing 60 kg (132 pounds) would have to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda – depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage – every day to be at risk. Its view has been widely shared by national regulators, including in the United States and Europe.
Given the global debate on the harmful impact of sweeteners and what are the acceptable levels of safe consumption, LocalCircles has conducted a survey to gauge how many Indian citizens consume artificial sweeteners and in what form and what should be done to ensure anyone consuming such products knows about the same. The survey received over 23,000 responses from consumers located in 295 districts of India. 66% respondents were men while 34% respondents were women. 42% respondents were from tier 1, 34% from tier 2 and 24% respondents were from tier 3, 4 and rural districts.
38% urban Indians surveyed consume artificial sweeteners every month
The survey first sought to know from citizens whether they were consumers of artificial sweeteners. It asked respondents, “Do you consume food that has artificial sweeteners every month?” Out of 11,342 who responded to this query 38% stated “yes” and the remaining 62% stated “no”. In India, FSSAI has approved six artificial sweeteners, namely saccharin sodium, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, and isomaltulose for use in food in India.
Among urban Indians that consume foods with artificial sweeteners each month, 1 in 3 consume diet soda or chewing gum
In the next question, the survey sought to know what products with artificial sweeteners were being consumed by urban Indians. It asked them, “What all foods do you consume each month that have artificial sweeteners?” Some among the 4,310 consumers who responded to this query indicated more than one food product. Two foods with sweeteners stood out as widely consumed Diet soda drinks indicated by 32% of respondents and sugar free gums also indicated by 32% of those surveyed. Besides these two products 26% indicated energy drinks; 18% sugar free chocolates; 18% sugar free ice creams; 5% energy bars and 37% other foods and drinks. In addition, 32% of the respondents did not give a clear response, opting for “can’t say”. In sum, of those urban Indians that consume foods with artificial sweeteners each month, 1 in 3 consume diet soda or chewing gum. Many of the respondents in this question opted for more than one product.
90% of respondents want food brands be made to display the use of artificial sweeteners (if applicable) prominently on the front of the pack
Even as the World Health Organization strives to establish the harmful impact of consuming artificial sweeteners, the survey sought to know the way forward from consumers “With the side effects of artificial sweeteners being reported, should the food brands be made to display the use of artificial sweeteners (if applicable) prominently on the front of the pack?” Out of 11,719 who responded to this query 90% stated “yes, most definitely”; 6% stated “no, it’s not needed” and 4% of respondents gave no clear response.
It must be noted here that a large number of products are available in the market now, which by default contain artificial sweeteners and are being heavily consumed by not only adults but even children. Recently, it was reported on LocalCircles how a globally popular health sports drink was regularly being consumed by children 7-18 regularly in Indian metros. The product contains sucralose and steviol glycoside and just says zero sugar on the packaging. Heavily marketed directly and indirectly amongst children and priced at an attractive INR 50, many parents without realizing the long term damage caused are buying it regularly for their wards. By the health regulator atleast making it mandatory for all such products to carry prominently on front of the pack the fact that the product has artificial sweetners, atleast parents will be able to make an informed decision.
In summary, as the health experts and international organisations come round to the view that artificial sweeteners do more harm than popularly believed, 90% of those surveyed in India want food brands to be made to display the use of artificial sweeteners (if applicable) prominently on the front of the pack. The survey has also revealed 38% urban Indians consume artificial sweeteners while 1 in 3 consume it every month in the form of diet soda or chewing gum, while sugar free chocolates and ice cream are other most popular foods with artificial sweeteners most popular among consumers. Given the apparent misconception among people that artificial sweeteners are less of an evil compared to sugar, gur or honey and they are a good option for those with diabetes or those desiring to lose weight, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the government should mount a campaign to educate people on the issue while directing the processed food companies to prominently display all relevant information about the sweeteners used and its possible negative impact on health.
The survey received over 23,000 responses from consumers located in 295 districts of India. 66% respondents were men while 34% respondents were women. 42% respondents were from tier 1, 34% from tier 2 and 24% respondents were from tier 3, 4 and rural districts. The survey was conducted via LocalCircles platform and all participants were validated citizens who had to be registered with LocalCircles to participate in this survey.