This week the World Health Organization released a new guideline on non-sugar sweeteners (NSS), which recommends against the use of these products to control body weight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases.
The recommendation is based on the findings of a systematic review of the available evidence which suggests that use of NSS does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children. Results of the review also suggest that there may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.
‘Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term,’ said Francesco Branca, WHO Director for Nutrition and Food Safety.
‘People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugars intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages.
‘Non-sugar sweeteners are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value,’ he said. ‘People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health.’
Wide range of alternative sweeteners in spotlight
The new WHO recommendation applies to everyone, apart from individuals with pre-existing diabetes, and includes all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified non-nutritive sweeteners that are not classified as sugars found in manufactured foods and beverages, or sold on their own to be added to foods and beverages by consumers.
Common non-sugar sweeteners include acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and stevia derivatives.
The recommendation does not apply to personal care and hygiene products containing NSS, such as toothpaste, skin cream, and medications, or to low-calorie sugars and sugar alcohols (polyols), which are sugars or sugar derivatives containing calories and are therefore not considered NSS.
Because the link observed in the evidence between NSS and disease outcomes might be confounded by baseline characteristics of study participants and complicated patterns of NSS use, the recommendation has been assessed as conditional, following WHO processes for developing guidelines.
This signals that policy decisions based on this recommendation may require substantive discussion in specific country contexts, linked for example to the extent of consumption in different age groups.
The WHO guideline on non-sugar sweeteners is part of a suite of existing and forthcoming guidelines on healthy diets that that the organisation intends to establish lifelong healthy eating habits, improve dietary quality and decrease the risk of noncommunicable diseases, worldwide.