The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued new recommendations cautioning against the use of non-sugar sweeteners to control weight due to potential health risks.
Based on a systematic review of scientific literature, the agency found that these sweeteners do not aid in long-term reduction of body fat and may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and early death.
WHO emphasises that their guidance does not encourage increased consumption of real sugar but rather advocates for reducing the overall sweetness in daily diets. WHO’s director for nutrition and food safety, Francesco Branca, suggests alternatives like consuming naturally occurring sugars from fruits or opting for unsweetened foods and beverages. Branca emphasises that sugar substitutes lack nutritional value and advises reducing overall sweetness from an early age to enhance health.
The recommendation applies to individual sweetener packets and the range of sugar substitutes increasingly added to processed foods and beverages, including bread, cereals, yogurts, and snack bars. WHO lists several common non-sugar sweeteners, such as acesulfame K, aspartame, and stevia derivatives.
The Calorie Control Council, a food industry group, strongly disagrees with WHO’s recommendation, asserting the safety of non-sugar sweeteners has been established. They claim these sweeteners aid in weight management, oral health, and reducing calorie and sugar intake. The council argues that WHO’s guidance fails to consider the full efficacy of these ingredients and could have negative consequences for public health.
Recent research challenges the previous belief that nonnutritive sweeteners are inert and primarily aid in calorie reduction. Studies indicate that sugar substitutes can adversely affect the gut microbiome, leading to changes in function and composition. Furthermore, a large study published in the BMJ links high intake of artificial sweeteners to increased risks of cardiovascular problems.
WHO acknowledges that its recommendation is “conditional” due to various factors, including differences in participant health, which may have influenced the findings. The Calorie Control Council emphasises that the “conditional” label indicates less certainty in the evidence supporting the guidance.
Robert Rankin, president of the council, asserts that a substantial body of evidence demonstrates the effectiveness and safety of low- and no-calorie sweeteners in reducing sugar and calorie consumption. He views these sweeteners, along with exercise and a healthy diet, as critical tools for managing body weight and reducing the risk of non-communicable diseases.
The WHO clarifies that their recommendation does not extend to personal care and hygiene products containing non-sugar sweeteners, such as toothpaste, skin cream, and medications.