‘Controversy’ swirls around non-sugar sweeteners after WHO recommends against them

A new chapter has emerged in the debate over sugar alternatives as the World Health Organization released new guidelines this week, recommending against the use of sugar-free sweeteners to control body weight.

Common sweeteners include stevia, aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, which are often added to soda or coffee to change the flavor without using sugar.

“There’s a lot of controversy about this topic,” said Allison Sylvetsky, a nutrition science professor at George Washington University.

The WHO said its recommendation was based on evidence showing that sweeteners do not benefit adults or children who are trying to reduce body fat.

Researchers also said there may be “potential undesirable effects from long-term use” of sweeteners, such as an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.

“People see ‘diet’ or ‘sugar-free’ and they think they’re making a healthy choice, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Sylvetsky said.

The WHO acknowledged that the link between sweeteners and disease outcomes may be impacted by baseline characteristics and different patterns of sweetener use among individuals.

“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 said.

Sylvetsky agreed that more research is needed.

“People use these sweeteners for many different reasons, some of which are related to weight loss,” she said. “Some people might have a diet beverage instead of a sugary drink to further weight loss, but other people like the taste or they think they’re having a healthier product.”

Francesco Branca, the WHO’s nutrition director, urged people “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 urged everyone to reduce the sweetness of diets altogether, starting early in life.

“Weight loss is a much bigger picture than just replacing sugar with nonnutritive sweeteners,” Sylvetsky said.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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