Contrary to general consumer perception, the use of non-sugar sweeteners does not have any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults and children, according to the World Health Organization.

In its latest guideline on non-sugar sweeteners (NSS), the UN agency has recommended against its use to control body weight or reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), based on the review of available evidence. These guidelines come just months after the WHO released a first-of-its-kind report to reduce the consumption of salt.

“Results of the review also suggest that there may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality in adults,” the WHO said. Common NSS included acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and stevia derivatives. An industry representative said some of these ingredients are used in energy and fitness products.

‘Clear labels’

Diabetologist Rajiv Kovil said sugar alternatives could be used in several products including beverages, where people want to control their weight. It is critical to have clear product labels, he said, so consumers are made aware.

Food and drugs regulatory expert DB Anantha Narayana said sugar alternatives used in processed foods or beverages would be labelled as “permitted sweetners”, and in some cases they would be named. They are governed by the country’s food laws, with permissible limits outlined, he added.

‘Reduce sugar’

“Replacing free sugar with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term. People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugar intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugar, like fruit or unsweetened food and beverages,” said Francesco Branca, WHO Director for Nutrition and Food Safety. “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,“ he added.

The recommendation was for all people except those with pre-existing diabetes and included all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified non-nutritive sweeteners that are not classified as sugars found in manufactured foods and beverages, or sold on their own to be added to foods and beverages by consumers, the WHO said.

Policy decisions based on these recommendations would require country-specific discussions, the agency added. The guidelines are part of a suite of existing and forthcoming guidelines on healthy diets to establish lifelong healthy eating habits, improve dietary quality and decrease the risk of NCDs worldwide.

The market
  • Industry estimates the NSS market at ₹800-1,000 crore, featuring brands like SugarFree, Splenda, and Equal.
  • The WHO guidelines did not apply to personal care, hygiene products containing NSS such as toothpaste, skin cream, and medications, or to low-calorie sugars and sugar alcohols.