World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines
W.H.O. issued new guidelines in May 2023 against non-sugar sweeteners (NSS). It said:
- Common NSS include acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, and other stevia derivatives.
- Replacing sugar with NSS does not help with weight control or related diseases in the long term.
- NSS increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
- NSS can be used for pre-existing diabetics.
- NSS exclude sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol.
What do these guidelines mean to you and me? Let us discuss this in brief.
To start with, there is nothing new in these. WHO has been sleeping behind the wheel or perhaps, they were waiting for more conclusive evidence.
Here is what I had written earlier:
- I wrote in July 2016 about why artificial sweeteners make you eat more. Research in Australia showed that over the long term, your brain wisens up to the low-calorie nature of foods containing sweeteners and automatically increases your appetite; no wonder you end up eating more. Of course, over the short term, you save calories by consuming them.
- I also wrote in October 2018 that artificial sweeteners can turn toxic to the body. They can damage the healthy gut microbes and cause many health disorders.
- Then, yesterday, I wrote about how food additives cause a leaky gut by damaging the inner lining of your body, leading to autoimmune conditions. Sugars and artificial sweeteners are often used in processed foods. So this problem is not just about artificial sweeteners but also about commercially available sugar.
Using the WHO Guidelines
Here are my views on how you should use these WHO guidelines. Sugar substitutes have two roles:
- To reduce calorie intake; and
- To help in weight loss and related disorders.
In the short term, sugar substitutes will help reduce calorie intake. If you want to drink an energy drink, it is better to choose one with a sugar substitute than one with sugar. This is a one-time decision, and in my opinion, it is absolutely fine to opt for artificial sweeteners.
However, if you are eating food containing artificial sweeteners in the hope of it helping you lose weight or reduce obesity, you are playing a long-term game. Over that time frame, sugar substitutes will not work as your brain will wisen up to the calorie deficit. Plus, you are risking harm to your gut and overall health, with such prolonged consumption.
In short, it is okay to choose sugar substitutes once in a while, but not on a continual basis.
I don’t like the WHO’s way of putting all artificial sweeteners in one basket. For example, WHO treats plant-based sugar substitutes such as stevia, monk fruit syrup, and yacon syrup and artificial chemical-based ones such as acesulfame K, aspartame, and saccharin the same.
Stevia and its derivatives are relatively safe compared to the others. It does not cause insulin or glucose surge in the blood. But stevia has two drawbacks:
- Its aftertaste is bitter and some do not like it; and
- It also affects gut bacterial mass.
Note that anything that is not a part of our normal food is bound to affect our intestinal bacteria. Even sugar does the same, as commercial sugar is a recent phenomenon.
Monk Fruit Syrup
This is obtained from monk fruit, which is native to China. It has no calories and controls blood glucose well. There are not many studies on the effects of its long-term use but it is generally considered safe.
Sugar alcohols, or polyols, are excluded from the WHO negative list. However, they also have issues. For example:
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol naturally found in fruits. It is practically eliminated in the urine unchanged. So it is labelled safe.
However, let us not fool ourselves; the amount found in nature is nearly one thousand times less than that used as a sugar substitute. At those high levels, things can be different.
- A few years ago, erythritol was found to be associated with heart disease.
- Very recent research has found that erythritol increases blood clotting. This can cause heart blockages and stroke.
Xylitol, amongst all sugar substitutes, appears to be the safest. It does not increase blood glucose or blood insulin. It is also found to be helpful for oral and bone health. But its effect on gut bacteria, especially with prolonged use, is still not clear.
In my opinion, xylitol, stevia, and monk fruit syrup are relatively safer, as per the research available currently.
The Most Important WHO Guideline
This is not an article on artificial sweeteners. I will write about them separately in future. This article is mainly on WHO guidelines, the most important of which is:
This line is the take-home message. By consuming sugar in any form, whether natural or artificial, you are activating the reward centres in your brain. By pandering to that need in any form, you stay a victim of that dependency.
As we quibble about the benefits of honey, jaggery, fructose, and other natural forms over commercial sugar, we forget about their common denominator: sugar addiction. The only long-term solution to that compulsion is to dissociate the feeling of pleasure connected with anything sugary. No sugar substitute, now or in the future, will give you that.
The Final Word
- Begin by reducing the sweetness of your diet.
- Help your children start that early in life.
- Don’t use chocolates and other sweets to reward your kids, or yourself.
For once, kudos to WHO for being way ahead of the curve.
To Read More
- Harvard School of Public Health: Low-Calorie Sweeteners
- Healthline: 5 Natural Sweeteners That Are Good for Your Health
- CNBC Science: Study: Artificial sweeteners toxic to digestive gut bacteria
- WHO: WHO advises not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control in newly released guideline
First Published on: 2nd June 2023
Image Credit: Wilson Ren on Pexels