WHO warns against artificial sweeteners

WHO has recommended against the use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) to control body weight or reduce the risk of non-communicable illnesses.

The use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) does not result in any long-term reduction in body fat, the World Health Organization said on Monday, with the UN health body suggesting that the use of such substances may in fact increase the risk of type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality in adults.

Based on a review of the available evidence, WHO recommended against the use of these artificial sweeteners to control body weight or reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), saying that the new guidelines were aimed at improving “dietary quality and decrease the risk of NCDs”.

“NSS are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value. People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health,” Francesco Branca, WHO Director for Nutrition and Food Safety, said in a release.

According to the release, the new guidelines are for all people except individuals with pre-existing diabetes, and includes all synthetic sweeteners used as alternatives to sugar in pre-packaged foods and beverages, and also added directly by the consumer.

Common NSS include acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and stevia derivatives.

“Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term. 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,” Branca said.

According to WHO data, high intake of non-sugar sweeteners has been linked to obesity, which affects nearly 40% of the global adult population and millions of children, and, in turn, diet-related NCDs that are the leading causes of death worldwide.

The recommendation, however, does not apply to personal care and hygiene products containing NSS, such as toothpaste, skin creams, and medications, or to low-calorie sugars and sugar alcohols (polyols), the WHO said.

“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 release said.

Experts welcomed the new guidelines.

“Based on new data emerging over last few years, I am more alarmed by possible harms (cancers, heart disease) ascribed to these sweeteners. There are virtually no benefits as has been emphasised in this advisory,” said Dr Anoop Misra, chairman, Fortis-C-DOC Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology.

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