James Suckling, Research Fellow, Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey (UK)

Sweeteners are often discussed in terms of their health and safety, with many narratives surrounding potential positive and negative aspects, whether measured or assumed. There is much research relating to health effects of sweeteners, and SWEET is adding to that body of research. Likewise, there is much discussed about the negative aspects of added sugar in consumer’s diets. The goal is to understand the ramifications of replacing added sugar in food and drink products with sweeteners and sweetness enhancers (S&SE). However, to date there is very little discussion around the sustainability of S&SE.

There are large amounts of evidence relating to the environmental, social, and cost impacts of food production, manufacture, and consumption as a whole. And one does not have to look far to find advice on how to reduce one’s environmental impact through dietary change. But if we are to propose a large-scale change to a diet, one which reduces sugar by replacing it with S&SE, it makes sense to ask the question of how it might affect the sustainability of one’s diet.

Sustainability needs each of environmental, societal, and economical ramifications to be measured. To our knowledge this has never been done for S&SE. SWEET will be the first to do this. There are a handful of studies relating to environmental issues, but these are not available in the public domain (i.e., published in literature). Again, SWEET will be the first to make available such information. The environmental studies are called life cycle assessments (LCA), and these are our current best tool for understanding environmental impact of a product or service, in this instance the S&SEs. LCAs have their own international standard which outlines how they should be conducted and reviewed (ISO 14040, and ISO 14044). By following this process SWEET is doing its best to ensure that the findings of the LCA are as accurate as they can be.

A vital part of an LCA is the data underpinning S&SE manufacturing processes. This includes information relating to inputs used to cultivate crops, transport distances, electricity or gas consumed, wastes disposed and so on. It is impossible to get good enough information from scientific literature, grey literature, or patents. Instead, it is best sourced from the companies making those products. In short, an LCA is only as good as the data that it uses and the best sources are those in the industry. Fortunately for SWEET, we have managed to engage with manufacturers of some of the sweeteners, willing to share data on their production processes.

This collaboration should not be underestimated in its importance.

The data which is shared can often be commercially sensitive and it requires trust from those providing it. This is especially true if there are no other studies publicly available on similar products and the data might become the first to be openly published. The data is often very detailed, and the search can delve deep into production processes to understand the nature of the inputs and outputs.

However, in doing so, companies can also stand to gain insight into their manufacturing processes. In a world of increasing concern over environmental impact of production processes, understanding the main sources of impact can greatly aid a company in tackling them. A strength of life cycle thinking is that it can explore parts of supply chains that might have otherwise been unknown to a company. Furthermore, the questions asked by an LCA practitioner can sometimes give a new perspective on a production process which can enable efficiencies to be made, or highlight disjoins in a supply chain that can be rectified. Not to mention that when taking part in research projects such as SWEET, the company is receiving an LCA for free, a service that might otherwise cost thousands! I often hear how a company has meant to look at its processes in more detail, but has not had the time or resources until I approached them.

However, despite some good interactions, we have not been able to engage with manufacturers of all the S&SE we are studying. The S&SE industry can be quite small (in terms of number of actors), and some companies are not comfortable sharing data. This is especially true when the company might not know the LCA practitioners well. A common issue for large companies is that the point of contact might not be the decision maker, and the benefits of an LCA can sometimes be lost in the internal communications. The companies we have engaged with are smaller, and the point of contact is often the same person who can make the decision whether to engage with us.

Lack of industrial engagement is no bad reflection upon a company, but it does hinder the sustainability research. We hope that, by showing how companies can engage in LCA studies, and gain from them, as well as furthering scientific knowledge on the environmental impact of S&SE, other, more cautious companies might be more willing to engage and further the research in leaps and bounds.