WHO’s guidelines on non-sugar sweeteners

Context: World Health Organization (WHO) issued new guidelines on May 15 advising against the use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) as a “healthy” alternative to sugar.

What are non-sugar sweeteners?

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  • Non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) are marketed as low or no-calorie alternatives to free sugars which aid in weight loss, and in controlling blood glucose in individuals with diabetes. They are widely used ingredients in beverages and pre-packed food. 

Examples: Acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, and stevia derivatives. 

  • Aspartame is popularly used to sweeten diet colas that claim to have ‘no sugar, no calories.’
  • Saccharin is used to sweeten tea or coffee.

Associated health risks:

  • As per a trial conducted by WHO ‘higher intake’ of NSS was associated with a 76% increase in risk of obesity and a 0.14 kg/m2 increase in BMI (Body Mass Index).
    • As per WHO, while there could be some weight loss and reduction in BMI in the short term as the artificial sweeteners bring down the calories consumed, but in the long run they have been linked to weight gain. 
  • WHO warned that long-term use of NSS could lead to increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, chronic kidney disease and cancer. 
  • Some low-certainty data also linked the use of such artificial sweeteners to bladder cancer and preterm birth when consumed by pregnant women.

Guidelines by WHO:

  • In its ‘conditional’ guideline, WHO says non-sugar sweeteners should not be used as a means of achieving weight control or reducing the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases.
    • In 2015, WHO issued a guideline that a high intake of free sugars is linked to weight gain and obesity, which lead consumers to turn to NSS as an alternative.

The Ministry of Health will have to initiate discussions among policy-makers before it decides to adopt this ‘conditional’ recommendation as a national policy.

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