Artificial sweeteners don’t help with weight loss in the long term, WHO warns

From diet cola to little tabs dissolved in your coffee, you have probably encountered sweeteners at some point in your life.

Hiding under names like acesulfame K, aspartame, erythritol, saccharin, sorbitol, xylitol and more, the artificial flavourings promise to deliver a sweet taste while keeping their calorie content low.

However, new guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) urges people not to use non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) as a tool for weight control.

It’s been long known that lower calorie and no-calorie sweeteners don’t necessarily make a food or drink healthy, but they can help reduce your sugar intake. 

The recent century has therefore seen many people add non-sugar sweeteners to their foods and beverages.

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Now, the WHO undertook a review of studies that have examined the impacts of sweeteners.

The research team looked at data from 283 studies conducted in adults, children, pregnant women or mixed populations.

The results suggested the “use of NSS does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children”.

However, the researchers noted that NSS use may lead to minor weight loss “when their use leads to a reduction in total energy intake” in the short term.

Worryingly, the WHO also outlined “undesirable effects” linked to the long-term use of sweeteners, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and death.

But researchers added that more studies are currently needed.

Francesco Branca, the WHO’s director for nutrition and food safety, said: “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.

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“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.”

As a result of the study, the WHO released a new conditional guideline recommending against the use of NSS to control body weight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases.

The recommendation applies to everyone except those with pre-existing diabetes.

It also applies to personal care and hygiene products containing NSS, such as toothpaste, skin cream, and medications.

Commenting on the guideline, Dr Ian Johnson, nutrition researcher and emeritus fellow at the Quadram Institute in Norfolk, said: “This new guideline is based on a thorough assessment of the latest scientific literature and it emphasises that the use of artificial sweeteners is not a good strategy for achieving weight loss by reducing dietary energy intake.

“However, this should not be interpreted as an indication that sugar intake has no relevance to weight control.

“A better alternative to the use of artificial sweeteners is to reduce consumption of manufactured products containing free sugars, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, to use raw or lightly processed fruit as a source of sweetness, and perhaps, in the longer term, to try to reduce one’s overall taste for sweetness.”

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