WHO Advises Against Nonsugar Sweeteners for Weight Control

Silver Spring, MD — A new guideline from the World Health Organization (WHO) on nonsugar sweeteners (NSSs) recommends not using them to control weight or reduce the risk for diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. These sweeteners include aspartame, acesulfame K, advantame, saccharine, sucralose, stevia, and stevia derivatives.

The recommendation is based on the findings of a systematic review that collected data from 283 studies in adults, children, pregnant women, and mixed populations. 

The findings suggest that use of NSSs does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children. They also suggest that long-term use of NSSs may have potential undesirable effects.

To clarify, short-term NSS use results in a small reduction in body weight and body mass index in adults without significant effects on other measures of adiposity or cardiometabolic health, including fasting glucose, insulin, blood lipids, and blood pressure.

Conversely, on a long-term basis, results from prospective cohort studies suggest that higher NSS intake is associated with increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and all-cause mortality in adults (very low to low certainty evidence). 

Regarding the risk for cancer, results from case-control studies suggest an association between saccharine intake and bladder cancer (very low certainty evidence), but significant associations for other types of cancer were not observed in case-control studies or meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.

Relatively fewer studies were found for children, and results were largely inconclusive.

Finally, results for pregnant women suggest that higher NSS intake is associated with increased risk for preterm birth (low certainty evidence) and possibly adiposity in offspring (very low certainty evidence).

Reducing Sugar Consumption

“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,” said Francesco Branca, MD, PhD, WHO director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, in a press release. 

“NSSs 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,” he added.

Applying the Guideline

The recommendation applies to all people except individuals with preexisting diabetes and includes all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified nonnutritive sweeteners, said the WHO. 

The recommendation does not apply to personal care and hygiene products containing NSSs, such as toothpaste, skin cream, and medications, or to low-calorie sugars and sugar alcohols (polyols).

Because the link observed in the evidence between NSSs and disease outcomes might be confounded by the baseline characteristics of study participants and complicated patterns of NSS use, the recommendation has been assessed as “conditional” by the WHO. 

“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,” said the WHO press release. 

This article was translated from the Medscape French Edition .

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