Non-sugar sweeteners are often used in a wide variety of beverages, desserts, and breakfast foods. While the jury is still out on specific health effects of using these sugar alternatives, the World Health Organization (WHO) says there are two purposes for which they shouldn’t be used.
The WHO has released a new guideline recommending against using non-sugar sweeteners to control body weight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases. The recommendation comes after a review of available research, which the organization says suggests there are no long-term weight loss benefits with the sweeteners’ use and that they may also increase the risk of diseases including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as possibly increasing mortality.
Francesco Branca, WHO Director for Nutrition and Food Safety, says, “Replacing free sugars with [non-sugar sweeteners] 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. [Non-sugar sweeteners] 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.”
The WHO says that because there could be confounding factors with participants in the studies that were reviewed, the guideline is conditional and more discussion may be called for in different countries. It’s also not applicable to people with diabetes, or with personal care and hygiene products containing non-sugar sweeteners. It doesn’t refer to low-calorie sugars or sugar alcohols, either, which are either sugar or derived from sugar.
The recommendation does apply, however, to all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified non-nutritive sweeteners that aren’t classified as sugar, whether they’re already contained as an ingredient or added in by someone consuming food or drink. Some of the most common types include aspartame, saccharine, sucralose, stevia, and stevia derivatives.
The WHO also has some guidelines for a healthy diet, including focusing on fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. At least five servings of fruits and veggies should be consumed each day. As for sugars, less than 10% of total energy intake should come from them, which is about 50 grams per day for a person at a healthy weight consuming 2000 calories per day. Less than 30% of total energy intake should come from fats, and salt consumption should be limited to fewer than five grams per day.