Don’t Use Sugar Substitutes for Weight Loss: WHO

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May 15, 2023 – People trying to lose weight should not use sugar substitutes known as non-sugar sweeteners, the World Health Organization said in a new report. 

There is no evidence that sugar substitutes help people reduce body fat, and they may even help increase the risks of diabetes or cardiovascular problems, WHO experts said. 

Non-sugar sweeteners are often added by manufacturers to beverages and packaged foods, and are also added to foods and beverages directly by consumers, such as adding a packet to a cup of tea or coffee. The sweeteners that the WHO now advises against using are “all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified non-nutritive sweeteners that are not classified as sugars,” the new guideline stated. They include the sweeteners acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, and stevia derivatives.

“Replacing free sugars with [non-sugar sweeteners] does not help with weight control in the long term. 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,” Francesco Branca, MD, PhD, director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at the World Health Organization, said in a statement. "[Non-sugar sweeteners] 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."

Four in 10 people in the world are overweight or obese, according to the WHO, which along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that people get less than 10% of their daily calories from sugar. The substitutes are used by many people as a way to sweeten their drinks and food while still meeting that recommendation for limited sugar intake.

The most recent U.S. dietary guidelines, published in 2020 by the Department of Agriculture, note that “replacing added sugars with low- and no-calorie sweeteners may reduce calorie intake in the short-term and aid in weight management, yet questions remain about their effectiveness as a long-term weight management strategy.”

The new WHO recommendation does not apply to people who already have diabetes and use non-sugar sweeteners to manage blood sugar levels. Advising people with diabetes on the use of sweeteners is “beyond the scope” of the new recommendation, the report authors wrote.