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Don’t use sugar substitutes for weight loss, World Health Organization advises

May 15, 2023

Don’t use sugar substitutes if you are trying to lose weight, according to new guidance from the World Health Organization.

The global health body said a systematic review of the available evidence suggests the use of non-sugar sweeteners, or NSS, “does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children.”

The review also indicated that there might be “potential undesirable effects” from the long-term use of sugar substitutes such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

“Replacing free sugars with NSS 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, WHO director for nutrition and food safety, said in a news release.

“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,” Branca said.

The organization said its recommendation applies to all people except those with preexisting diabetes.

“This new guideline is based on a thorough assessment of the latest scientific literature, and it emphasises that the use of artificial sweeteners is not a good strategy for achieving weight loss by reducing dietary energy intake,” said nutrition researcher Ian Johnson, emeritus fellow at Quadram Institute Bioscience, formerly the Institute of Food Research, in Norwich, United Kingdom.

“However, this should not be interpreted as an indication that sugar intake has no relevance to weight-control,” Johnson said in a statement.

Instead, one should cut back on using sugar-sweetened drinks, and try to use “raw or lightly processed fruit as a source of sweetness,” Johnson added.

Dr. Keith Ayoob, scientific adviser for the Calorie Control Council, an international association representing the low-calorie food and beverage industry, told CNN via email the WHO’s “insistence on focusing only on prevention of unhealthy ‎weight gain and non-communicable diseases is at the very least, misguided.”

Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, said “low- and no-calorie sweeteners are a critical tool that can help consumers manage body weight and reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases.”

Latest research included

A total of 283 studies were included in the review. Both randomized controlled trials, considered the gold standard of research, and observational studies were included in the review. Observational studies can only show an association, not direct cause and effect.

“This signals that policy decisions based on this recommendation may require substantive discussion in specific country contexts, linked for example to the extent of consumption in different age groups,” the WHO news release said.

Results from randomized trials found the use of non-sugar sweeteners had a “low” impact on reducing body weight and calorie intake when compared with sugar, and no change in Intermediate markers of diabetes such as glucose and insulin, according to the report.

Observational studies also found a low impact on body weight and fat tissue, but no change in calorie intake. However, those studies found a low increase in risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and death from heart disease, the report noted. A very low risk was also found for bladder cancer and an early death from any cause.

WHO said that the recommendation was “conditional” because the identified link between sweeteners and disease outcomes might be confounded by complicated patterns of sweetener use and the characteristics of the study participants.

In an emailed statement, the International Sweeteners Association, an industry assocation, said “it is a disservice to not recognise the public health benefits of low/no calorie sweeteners and is disappointed that the WHO’s conclusions are largely based on low certainty evidence from observational studies, which are at high risk of reverse causality.”

Both artificial and ‘natural’ sweeteners

The recommendation included low or no calorie synthetic sweeteners and natural extracts, which may or may not be chemically modified, such as acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and stevia derivatives, WHO said.

Many people consider stevia products to be more “natural,” since they are derived from the stevia plant. Some natural and artificial sweeteners add bulking sugars to their products to cut their sweetness and add bulk to the product for baking.

recent study by researchers at the US-based Cleveland Clinic found erythritol — used to add bulk or sweeten stevia, monkfruit and keto reduced-sugar products — was linked to blood clotting, stroke, heart attack and early death.

People with existing risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, were twice as likely to experience a heart attack or stroke if they had the highest levels of erythritol in their blood, the study found.

Non-sugar sweeteners are widely used as an ingredient in prepackaged foods and beverages and are also sometimes added to food and drinks directly by consumers.

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. Following that recommendation, interest in sugar alternatives intensified, the review said.

You can cut sugar and sweeteners

Even if you are a true sugar “addict,” the good news is that you can tame your sweet tooth, registered dietitian Lisa Drayer said in an article for CNN. She provides the following steps:

Train your taste buds. If you gradually cut back on sugar — including artificial sweeteners — and include more protein and fiber-rich foods in your diet, that can help you crave less sugar, Drayer said.

“When we consume protein and fiber, it slows the rise in blood sugar if we consume it with a sugar-containing food. It can help satisfy us and help us reduce our sugar intake as well,” she said in a previous interview.

Choose no-sugar-added foods and avoid all sugar-sweetened drinks. For example, choose whole-grain cereal or Greek yogurt with no sweeteners. The sugar-sweetened drinks to take off your grocery list should include sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks and fruit punch. Choose water instead.

“If you like sweet carbonated beverages, add a splash of cranberry or orange juice to seltzer or try flavored seltzers. You can also flavor your own waters with fruit slices for natural sweetness or try herbal fruit teas,” Drayer said.

Drink coffee and tea with no or fewer sugars. Be careful at coffee shops, Drayer suggested. All those lattes and flavored coffees can have as much sugar as a can of soda, or more.

Enjoy fruit for dessert. Try cinnamon baked apples, berries or grilled peaches instead of cookies, cake, ice cream, pastries and other sweet treats, Drayer said.

Watch for stealth sugars. Added sugars are often present in foods that you might not think of as “sweet,” like sauces, breads, condiments and salad dressings, Drayer said.

“Pre-packaged sauces — like ketchup, BBQ sauce and tomato sauce — tend to be some of the biggest offenders of hidden added sugars in the diet,” Kristi King, senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Drayer in a prior interview.

Check nutrition facts labels. All foods and beverages must list the amount and kind of sugar on the label.

Added sugars can go by other names such as “agave, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, fruit nectar, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, maple syrups, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose and turbinado sugar,” Drayer said.

The higher up these added sugars are on the ingredients list, the greater the amount of added sugar in the product, she said. (CNN)

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