Even after the Health Ministry required that food packages be marked with red circles to represent a large amount of sugar (or fat or salt), supermarket shelves are bursting with cereals, cakes, candies and other products that are very sweet, and those with less sugar are hard to find.
Sweet taste is innately appealing, ensuring that mammals are attracted to the sweetness of mother’s milk and other sources of carbohydrates and calories.
In the modern world, the availability of sugars and sweeteners and the eagerness of the food industry to maximize palatability result in an abundance of sweet manufactured foods that pose a major health challenge.
Most of us struggle with a sweet tooth despite wanting to eat a healthful diet – but is sweeter always tastier?
A new study conducted by student Kim Asseo, under the supervision of Prof. Masha Niv, a taste expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot, analyzed thousands of customer reviews of food products sold online and found that reviewers tend to give lower scores to products deemed “too sweet.”
The study, funded by the Israel Innovation Authority and Israel Science Foundation, has just been published in the scientific journal Foods under the title “Harnessing Food Product Reviews for Personalizing Sweetness Levels.”
The team studied about 560,000 reviews of about 31,000 food products that were sold on the leading online marketplaces – over 200,000 reviews on Amazon between 2002 to 2012 and 350,000 reviews of 2,400 products on iHerb from 2006 to 2021 and found that a tenth of them refer to the products’ sweetness. The researchers then used machine learning and natural language processing to categorize the responses by the level of sweetness.
“Seven percent to 16% of the reviews we examined indicated oversweetness. This is important because customers who complained about products being oversweet gave them significantly lower scores (one star less) than did customers who did not complain about oversweetness. In addition, the reviews mentioning oversweetness came from different customers and only for some of the products those customers tried rather than from ‘serial complainers,’ ” Prof. Niv added.
One of the ingredients that most frequently led to reviews citing oversweetness was the artificial sweetener Sucralose. “Food companies that make candies, snacks and soft drinks must also pay attention to the demand for products that are less sweet,” Asseo asserted.
This is important not just for public health reasons, by supplying individuals who prefer it with food that is less sweet and is less harmful to health, but also for the food companies themselves so that they can boast a healthier product line and sell these healthier products to customers who actually find them tastier, she added.
“Although sweetness preference does not correlate with obesity and type-2 diabetes, overconsumption of sugars does. The availability of sugars and sweeteners and the eagerness of the food industry to maximize appeal to customers result in sweet food product abundance, posing a major health challenge,” the researchers wrote.
“Although sweetness preference does not correlate with obesity and type-2 diabetes, overconsumption of sugars does. The availability of sugars and sweeteners and the eagerness of the food industry to maximize appeal to customers result in sweet food product abundance, posing a major health challenge.”Hebrew University research team
The World Health Organization has called obesity “a global pandemic affecting over 650 million adults (13%), with 378 million children under 18 classified as overweight or obese."
What affects Preference for sweetness?
Preference for sweetness intensity is dependent on age, gender, race and culture, individual differences and the food or beverage itself.
“Food choice does not necessarily fully align with food preference and depends on other factors, such as price and health. Moreover, the desire to eat something sweet depends on social norms, the behavior of others at the table and satiety. While people have a suppressed appetite for sweet foods after eating something sweet or when experiencing general satiety, highly palatable and easily accessible food can cause the opposite effect and increase sweet food consumption.”
Prof. Niv concluded that despite popular opinion, not everyone thinks that sweeter means tastier. “There is an opportunity here to diversify the levels of sweetness in products and to create healthier versions that are more closely tailored to the preferences of certain customer groups.”