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Non-sugar sweeteners shouldn't be used for weight loss, WHO says

Long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners may actually come with health risks

Photo (c) Gilaxia - Getty Images
Many consumers turn to non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) – Equal, Truvia, Splenda, etc. – as a healthier alternative to traditional sugar

However, new guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that this may not be the healthiest option. Experts found that NSS aren’t ideal for consumers looking to lose weight, and long-term consumption of these sweeteners can lead to a number of health risks. 

“Non-sugar sweeteners are low- or no-calorie alternatives to free sugars that are generally marketed as aiding weight loss or maintenance of healthy weight, and are frequently recommended as a means of controlling blood glucose in individuals with diabetes,” the WHO guideline states. “Individual sweeteners undergo toxicological assessment to establish safe levels of intake (i.e. acceptable daily intake). However, there is no clear consensus on whether NSS are effective on long-term weight control or if they are linked to other long-term health effects at habitual intakes within the acceptable daily intake.” 

Research says: there are health risks 

Experts at the WHO analyzed several recent studies that explored the effect of NSS on weight loss, as well as the overall health effects associated with these sweeteners. 

One of the biggest takeaways was that long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners was linked with not only higher weight and body mass index (BMI), but a wide range of other health concerns.

High intake of NSS over a 10-year period increased the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular-related death, and all-cause mortality. 

These findings prompted the WHO to recommend that consumers avoid these sweeteners in food and drinks – particularly when it comes to weight loss or long-term disease risk. However, there are two caveats to the guidance: those with diabetes are exempt from these recommendations, and personal care and hygiene products that contain NSS (toothpaste, moisturizer, etc.) don’t lead to long-term health risks. 

What to avoid

Some of the most common artificial sweeteners the WHO says you should avoid include: aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin), stevia (Truvia), saccharin (Sweet and Low), cyclamates, sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame K (Sweet One), neotame, and advantame. 

“Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term,” said Francesco Branco, director for nutrition and food safety at WHO. “People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugar intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages. 

“NSS are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value,” he continued. “People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health.” 

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