Obesity levels are reaching pandemic proportions. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Obesity Update 2017, nearly a fifth of the adult population in OECD countries was obese in 2015.

OECD obesity update

Obesity rates peak at over 30 per cent in Hungary, New Zealand, Mexico and the US, while more than 25 per cent of the adult population is obese in Australia, Canada, Chile, South Africa and the UK.

Despite exhortations from governments and health systems for consumers to eat healthier lower fat and lower sugar diets, obesity rates continue to grow in most countries, and even where levels have stabilised, there is no sign of any decline in the existing high rates.

While fatty diets are undoubtedly a contributory factor in the spread of obesity, sugar is the current focus as public enemy number one.

Sugar as the villain in fighting obesity

A number of countries – including Mexico, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Hungary and Ireland – have introduced sugar levies to push up the price of sugary products, with the aim of discouraging consumers from consuming as much.

However, these have been largely focused on sugary drinks (with the exception of Hungary and Mexico), leaving plenty of other places for consumers to sate their sugar craving. Most reformulations have also replaced sugar with alternative sweeteners, which are just as sweet. Moreover, evidence to date on the impact of sugar taxes is mixed, with initial sharp drops in consumption generally not maintained.

So perhaps now is the time for a complete change in approach. Human beings have a natural preference for sweet flavours – the first thing most babies consume is breast milk, which is naturally sweet. They have to learn to adapt to new flavours by repeated trial, and will often initially reject new tastes – scientists estimate that it may be necessary to try a new flavour ten or more times for a child to learn to like it.

Baby food in the fight against obesity

Baby food manufacturers have sought to circumvent this by disguising new ingredients within familiar sweet products. An article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlighted the paucity of single vegetable products: only 9.5 per cent of foods were single vegetables, and none were dark green vegetables or beans/peas. Where products had more than one ingredient, fruits were listed as the first ingredient in 38 per cent of products, more commonly than all vegetables. Red or orange vegetables – which tend to have a sweeter flavour (such as carrots and sweet potatoes) — were the first ingredient in 24 per cent of dishes, with dark green vegetables listed first in only 1%.

The result is that while parents are succeeding in sneaking vegetables into their little ones’ stomachs, they are, at the same time, predisposing them to prefer sugary foods.

The answer must be for us to learn to love less sweet foods. While this should start with baby food, as this is where the consumption patterns of the future are formed, manufacturers in all categories also need to look at products for children, teens and adults and work at reformulations that don’t just substitute one sweet thing for another, but actually celebrate less sweetness, focusing on the actual flavour of the ingredients.

PepsiCo has taken a step in this direction with its upcoming launch in Germany of Lipton Weniger Süß (less sweet) which contains less sugar than standard Lipton iced tea and contains no artificial sweeteners – although it does use honey, which is naturally sweeter than sugar.

Obesity among adults (2015 or nearest year)

Source: OECD Obesity Update 2017
Note: The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

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