Sugar substitutes may seem like a sweet deal for people who want to cut down on calories and lose weight. But a new guideline from the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that these products are not as beneficial as they appear.
According to the WHO, sugar substitutes, also known as non-sugar sweeteners (NSS), do not help with weight loss in the long term and may have negative health effects. The guideline is based on a systematic review of 283 studies that examined the impact of NSS on body fat, blood sugar, insulin, appetite, and disease risk.
The review found that replacing free sugars with NSS does not reduce body fat in adults or children. In fact, some studies suggested that NSS might increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases by altering the gut bacteria and affecting the body’s response to insulin.
“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,” said Francesco Branca, WHO director for nutrition and food safety.
NSS include both synthetic sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, and natural extracts, such as stevia and monk fruit. They are widely used in pre-packaged foods and beverages, as well as added to food and drinks by consumers.
The WHO guideline applies to all people except those with pre-existing diabetes, who may benefit from using NSS to control their blood sugar levels. However, even for people with diabetes, NSS are not a magic bullet.
“Artificial sweeteners won’t automatically lead to weight loss,” said Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. “Some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may increase appetite and cravings for sweet foods.”
Dr. Katz also cautioned that artificial sweeteners may have other adverse effects on health, such as disrupting the balance of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain.
“The bottom line is that we don’t need any added sweetness in our diet,” he said. “We should focus on eating more natural foods that contain intrinsic sugars, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.”
The WHO issued guidelines on sugar intake in 2015, recommending that adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. Free sugars are those added to foods and drinks by manufacturers or consumers, as well as those naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices.
Following that recommendation, interest in sugar alternatives had intensified. But the new guideline suggests that NSS are not a viable solution for weight loss or health improvement.
“Don’t use sugar substitutes if you are trying to lose weight,” said Branca. “People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugars intake.”