The World Health Organization (WHO) is now advising against using non-sugar sweeteners to control body weight, under new recently released guidelines.
The guidelines are based on a review of scientific evidence. Non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) don’t result in a long-term benefit in reducing body fat in children or adults, according to the WHO. However, the recommendations don’t apply to individuals with pre-existing diabetes.
"Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term,” said Francesco Branca, WHO Director for Nutrition and Food Safety, in a statement. “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.”
Using non-sugar sweeteners over a long period of time may also put people at an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality in adults, according to the WHO.
Non-sugar sweeteners have no nutritional value; though they have risen in popularity in recent years due to their ability to sweeten foods and drinks without the calories of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Common sweeteners include acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose and stevia derivatives. Products with non-sugar sweeteners may be marked with labels like “low calorie,” “0 calorie” or “diet” in an attempt to gain traction with consumers.
The prevalence of non-sugar sweeteners in packaged food products in the U.S. continues to rise. A recent study of packaged food and beverages purchased by U.S. households found that while products containing caloric sweeteners like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup decreased from 2018 to 2022, products with both non-sugar sweeteners and caloric sweeteners increased during that same time frame.
The overall sweetening of the modern diet is a concern to experts, especially as rates of childhood obesity continue to increase. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes 34 teaspoons of sugars a day – equal to more than 500 calories. One of the main sources of added sugars are in processed foods and sweetened beverages. The WHO recommends finding ways to remove added sweeteners – whether they are caloric or not – from everyday meals in order to improve overall health.
Research has shown that consuming sweet foods and drinks sends signals to the human brain to eat more. Part of the issue with non-sugar sweeteners is that they provide a sweet taste without the nutritive benefit of calories – which could leave to cravings of more sweet foods and drinks in general. This cycle of consumption can lead to excess calories – leading to weight gain. Additionally, non-nutritive sweeteners may affect how the body responds to sugar and may affect the taste of normal foods.
Sugars and sweeteners can be hard to detect in everyday foods – and may be lurking in unexpected places, like yogurt, breakfast cereals, crackers, ketchup, salad dressings, pasta sauce and bread. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume no more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugar a day. Here are some tips to cut back on sweetness in your diet:
- Make sweet treats really "treats" that are enjoyed occasionally and in moderation – not everyday foods.
- Serve smaller portions of sweets and desserts so you can still enjoy these foods.
- Slowly switch to unsweetened beverages like unsweet tea, water, 100% juice or low-fat milk products instead of sugar-laden sodas and juice drinks.
- Don't offer sweet foods as a reward, especially to children.
- For an everyday dessert, turn to more natural sources of sweets, like fruit, dark chocolate and lightly sweetened nuts.
- Read the labels of food items carefully and choose those that contain the least amount of total sugars and non-sugar sweeteners. The higher up on the ingredient list, the more plentiful it is in the food.
- Avoid foods that have been modified to be low-fat, but have increased sugar.
Find healthy and nutritious food and recipe ideas to live a balanced lifestyle on AHealthierMichigan.org.