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Can we get used to eating less sugar?

We eat far too much sugar, for example in the form of sweetened drinks, yogurt and cake. However, do we even like these foods if they no longer have the same high sugar content? Researchers from Department of Food Science at Aarhus University have looked into this in a comprehensive literature survey.

2020.12.22 | Lise Bundgaard

In their study, the researchers looked into whether it is possible to reduce the sugar content without compromising on taste. Photo: Colourbox

We have heard it before; we eat too much sugar. Sweets, soft drinks, ice cream, cake and yoghurt sweetened with sugar are among the favourites, but do we even like these foods if we cut down on the sugar content? Researchers from Department of Food Science at Aarhus University have studied this in a comprehensive literature study, which has just been published as a DCA report. This was made at request by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration.

Associate Professor Ulla Kidmose, Department of Food Science, Aarhus University, is responsible for the research project. She explains:

-          It will undoubtedly be advantageous for our health to eat food products with a lower sugar content, but the question is whether it is possible to reduce the sugar content without compromising on taste. We are focusing on this in our literature survey, in particular on habituation and alternatives to sugar.

A question of habituation

After studying the literature, the researchers can now conclude that we may be able to get used to a lower sugar content:

-          In many cases, a reduced sugar content affects our experience negatively. Among other things, this applies to studies of fruit drinks, chocolate milk, yogurt and biscuits. However, some studies have examined what happens if we are exposed to a sugar-reduced food product several times. They show that we actually grow to like the sugar-reduced product better over time. This is an interesting conclusion, but it requires several studies before we can say this with certainty, says Line Pedersen, Research Assistant at the Department of Food Science, Aarhus University. She is one of the researchers of the report. She continues:

 -There are also studies showing what happens if we reduce the sugar content gradually over time, and here the effect is also positive. A study of chocolate milk, for example, concludes that we can reduce the sugar content by 12.9% a year for three years, without the consumers thinking less of the product. Several studies point in this direction, but there is a need for further studies to confirm this.

Sweeteners a possible option

The researchers have also taken a closer look at the possibility of replacing sugar with sweeteners, and there are good opportunities for doing this for a number of the food products that contribute most to our consumption of sugar:

 -When it comes to fruit drinks, studies show that sweeteners can replace sugar fully or partially, without us disliking the product. This also applies to sugar-sweetened yogurt, where stevia and sucralose both have good abilities to replace sugar 100%, and for chocolate milk, where stevia and mogrosid can replace 25% of the sugar. Up to half of the sugar found in cake can be replaced by erythritol or stevia, or a combination of the two, says Line Pedersen, who also calls for further studies.

- In general, there is a need for more consumer studies – both Danish and international – in order to be able to understand why consumers like the different foods that have been added sweeteners.

Alternatives to sugar and sweeteners

The researchers emphasise that sugar and sweeteners are not alone when it comes to the experience of sweetness.

-          Our experience of sweetness depends on several different factors, which both affect the product itself and the context in which the product is consumed. In addition, there are large individual differences in our experience of sweetness, concludes Line Pedersen.  

Facts about the project   

Collaborators Department of Food Science, Aarhus University        
Funding    The report is commissioned by Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, and it has been prepared as part of the "Framework Agreement on the science-based policy advice of Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark with underlying government agencies 2020-2023". Read more about science-based policy advice here   
External commentary    External commentary on the DCA report 'Adapting to less sweet taste and the use of sweeteners, as well as a preference for sweet taste from childhood' has been submitted by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration.  
Conflicts of Interest    None
Read more    

The DCA report "Adapting to less sweet taste and the use of sweeteners, as well as a preference for sweet taste from childhood" can be downloaded here.  

You can also read more about the research on experiences of sweetness at Department of Food Science in the following articles:  

Can sugar-reduced products be just as sweet?   

Sweetness happens in the mind as much as in the mouth

Contact    Associate Professor Ulla Kidmose, Department of Food Science, email: ulla.kidmose@food.au.dk      

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