Artificial sweeteners have long been used as a substitute for sugar to aid in weight loss and calorie reduction, as well as to avoid the negative effects of added sugars.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has just released new guidelines indicating that these sweeteners may have very little impact on long-term weight loss, and may even increase the risk of certain diseases.
According to a systematic review conducted by the WHO, zero-calorie sweeteners, also known as non-sugar sweeteners (NSS), did not promote significant weight loss or reduction in body fat for adults or children.
Furthermore, the review indicated that these sweeteners could potentially lead to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even mortality. The new guidelines have left many people wondering what this means for their diets and what alternatives they can explore.
The WHO guidelines classify NSS sweeteners as any that are not classified as sugar, including natural, synthetic and non-nutritive sweeteners, with examples including acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, and stevia derivatives.
Sweeteners such as Splenda, Sweet N’ Low, Equal, and Stevia fall under this category, as do foods and drinks that use these sweeteners, such as diet soda and many zero-sugar products. However, the guidelines do not apply to sugar alcohols and low-calorie sugars.
These new WHO guidelines echo previous studies indicating potential health risks from consuming artificial sweeteners. For instance, a study published in the BMJ found that consuming artificial sweeteners was linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, and another study from PLOS Medicine found a link between aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame-K and a higher risk of developing cancer.
Similarly, the findings regarding weight loss are largely in agreement with the WHO’s guidelines, with one study indicating that there was no significant impact of NSS on weight loss while another suggested that they may contribute to weight gain.
Despite the appeal of zero-calorie sweeteners for those attempting to reduce calorie and added sugar intake, the new guidelines suggest that consuming food containing naturally occurring sugars, such as fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages may be a better alternative.
Ali Bandier, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Senta Health recommends using spices like cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and extracts like vanilla or almond to enhance sweetness, swapping out table sugar for other natural sweets such as raw honey, incorporating citrus into dishes, and adding dried dates to sweeten up dishes.
While it is important to consider the new guidelines, it is also important to remember that occasional indulgences are not harmful and can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Individuals who regularly consume zero-calorie sweeteners or use them occasionally should discuss their unique health needs with a doctor or dietitian to assess the impact of the new WHO guidelines.