Bilan de l’utilisation des sucres et édulcorants dans les aliments transformés
Expert assessment
1 min

Report on the use of sugars and sweeteners in processed foods

Reducing added sugars in food is one of the main strategies for preventing obesity and diabetes. ANSES has produced a comprehensive report on trends in the use of sweetening ingredients or ingredients conveying sweetness – sugar, glucose, glucose-fructose syrups, honey, fruit juices, caramel, artificial sweeteners, etc. – in beverages and processed foods. It examined the ingredient lists on more than 54,000 products on the market between 2008 and 2020, identified by OQALI, the French Food Observatory. This report shows that the majority of products, even savoury products, contained at least one sweetening ingredient or ingredient conveying sweetness. However, the Agency notes a decline in the use of sweetening ingredients over the last 10 years, particularly sugar syrups and artificial sweeteners. ANSES also stresses that it is possible to further reduce the use of sweetening ingredients in products. 

Added sugars: a variety of uses that may be difficult to spot

Sweetening ingredients or ingredients conveying sweetness encompass a multitude of components described by numerous terms on packaging: sucrose, sugar, glucose-fructose syrup, aspartame, dextrose, molasses syrup, fruit juice concentrate, etc. For this study, all sweetening ingredients were taken into account: not just added sugars but also ingredients that impart a sweet taste without providing energy, such as artificial sweeteners. The aim was to identify the different forms of sweetening ingredients used in processed products, particularly in categories where they are not necessarily expected.

The ingredient lists of more than 54,000 products on the French market between 2008 and 2020 were examined: ice creams and sorbets, jams, cereal bars, juices and nectars, dairy products, biscuits and cakes, soft drinks, ready meals, sauces, delicatessen meats, etc. The study involved measuring the frequency of use of sweetening ingredients on the basis of the product labels, dividing them into 11 pre-defined ingredient classes.

Set up in 2008, OQALI, the French Food Observatory, conducts comprehensive monitoring of the food supply by objectively measuring changes in the nutritional quality of processed products. It is run jointly by the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) and ANSES.

Find out more about OQALI (in French)

Three quarters of products contained at least one sweetening ingredient or ingredient conveying sweetness

According to the most recent data, the majority of products studied (77%) contained at least one sweetening ingredient or ingredient conveying sweetness. These ingredients were also found in savoury product categories. Sucrose, the equivalent of "table sugar", was found in more than half the food products studied (58%).

The study also looked at combinations of sweetening ingredients: 59% of products used just one class or a combination of two different classes of sweetening ingredients or ingredients conveying sweetness.

Fewer sweeteners and sweetening ingredients

The Agency noted a significant reduction in the percentage of products containing these ingredients over the last decade, with the biggest falls seen mainly in savoury products. Moreover, the use of intense sweeteners has fallen sharply, particularly aspartame, whose presence in products has dropped from 1.8% to 0.4% in around ten years.

This trend is partly due to product reformulations by manufacturers. Compositions have been revised to favour very common ingredients, such as white sugar or "sucrose", or those perceived as more "natural", such as fruit juices. Sugar syrups and artificial sweeteners are now used much less often.

"This study did not look at the quantities used, as these are rarely mentioned on the packaging. So the results do not necessarily indicate a reduction in the total sugar content of products: it is important to remember that a product that uses fewer sweetening ingredients or ingredients conveying sweetness than before does not necessarily have a lower sugar content. The removal of a sweetening ingredient may be accompanied by a revision of the proportion of other ingredients," explains Julie Gauvreau-Béziat, Head of the Food Observatory Unit. This explains why ANSES and INRAE carry out sector studies for OQALI on levels of sugar in the food groups containing the most, such as beverages. For a given type of product, the studies show that sugar levels still vary widely between brands.

Aiming for lower sugar levels in soft drinks

ANSES has now also published one of these sector studies on changes in the supply and nutritional quality of soft drinks between 2010, 2013 and 2019. More than 4500 product references were analysed – soft drinks, flavoured waters, fruit drinks, energy drinks, etc. – with a particular focus on their sugar content.

This study shows that the sugar content of sweetened beverages (with or without artificial sweeteners) on the market fell between 2013 and 2019. This trend, which began between 2010 and 2013, accelerated sharply from 2013 onwards. This result may be explained by the introduction of measures to reduce the sugar content of drinks. A collective agreement was reached between the main manufacturers in the sector and the public authorities to reduce the average sugar content by 5%. In addition, since 2012, drinks containing added sugars and/or sweeteners have been subject to a tax, which became proportional to the added sugar content in 2018.

ANSES emphasises that there is scope to reduce levels of sweetening ingredients in many products. Efforts should therefore continue to reduce these levels in beverages and processed foods.

Sugar consumption and health

High consumption of sugar increases energy intake beyond needs and can therefore, over the long term, lead to overweight or even obesity, thus increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or certain types of cancer.

In its 2016 opinion on sugar intake (in French), ANSES recommended that adults and adolescents should not exceed 100 g of total sugars per day. This value is however exceeded in around 20% of adults and 25% of 13 to 17 year-olds in France.

In its 2019 opinion on dietary guidelines for children (in French), the Agency considered that children from 4 to 7 years of age should not exceed 60 g/d, yet this is the case for 75% of them, while 60% of 8 to 12 year-olds exceed their defined threshold value of 75 g/d.