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Understanding the New WHO Guideline on Non-Sugar Sweeteners: What You Should Know

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Adding artificial sweetener to a cup of tea

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published a new guideline on non-sugar sweeteners, sparking discussions and raising questions about their impact on our health. Let's explore the main findings and key takeaways from this important guideline.

In brief, The WHO guideline advises against the long-term use of non-sugar sweeteners - which includes both artificial sweeteners and natural alternatives like stevia - for weight control and reducing the risk of chronic diseases. It outlines that non-sugar sweeteners do not provide any significant benefits in reducing body fat in adults or children over the long term. According to the guideline, prolonged use of non-sugar sweeteners may have potential undesirable effects. Studies suggest a potential increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease associated with their long-term consumption in adults.

The guideline mentions various non-sugar sweeteners, including aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, and stevia derivatives. Low-calorie sugars and sugar alcohols (polyols), which contain calories, are not classified as non-sugar sweeteners, and are therefore not covered by this recommendation. Examples of commonly known polyols include sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, and mannitol.

Rather than relying on non-sugar sweeteners, WHO encourage individuals to reduce their intake of free sugars. Free sugars include sugars added to foods and beverages by manufacturers, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices. Choosing naturally occurring sweeteners found in fruits and opting for unprocessed or minimally processed foods and beverages can help improve overall diet quality.

It is worth noting that the guideline applies to most individuals but excludes those with pre-existing diabetes.

Experts have shared their thoughts on the new guideline here and raised some important points to keep in mind. One notable concern is the reliance on observational studies. While these studies offer valuable insights into connections between factors, they can't definitively establish cause and effect relationships. Additionally, the quality of evidence supporting the guideline was often rated as low, mainly due to the limited number of long-term studies available. Furthermore, the guideline didn't directly compare the effects of replacing sugar with non-sugar sweeteners or assess the different types of sweeteners individually.

While the new guidelines made the headlines, it's important to remember that they were designed primarily for professionals and organisations involved in shaping nutrition and public health policies. These guidelines might seem overwhelming when taken out of context. It's important to consider their intended audience and purpose when hearing about them in the media.

How can we translate these guidelines into practical actions and effectively incorporate them into our daily lives?

News like this offers us a chance to reflect on our choices and learn more. It's essential to recognise that there isn't a one-size-fits-all diet or a single solution that works for everyone, whether it involves artificial sweeteners or eating habits. Staying informed about the changing field of nutrition recommendations empowers you to make decisions that best suit your health.

Non-sugar sweeteners can serve as a useful tool to reduce calorie intake in the short term, making them a practical "stepping stone" intervention for lowering sugar consumption and managing weight. For example, if someone regularly consumes a lot of sugary drinks, transitioning to beverages with sweeteners can be a helpful initial step as they begin to make long-term changes. This approach is backed by evidence, supporting its effectiveness as a temporary strategy.

Ultimately, working towards a dietary pattern that is naturally low in free sugars and reduces dependence on non-sugar sweeteners while incorporating natural alternatives is ideal. By choosing whole, unprocessed foods and beverages that inherently contain minimal sugars, you can establish a foundation for a healthier dietary pattern. Prioritising sources of sweetness from fruit and opting for minimally processed options promotes a more sustainable and balanced way of eating, supporting long-term health and well-being.

Here are some practical examples that I often recommend to my clients as actionable steps:

Reducing the consumption of sugary drinks

Soft drinks, such as carbonated beverages, fruit juices, energy drinks, and flavoured waters, often contain high amounts of free sugars or use non-sugar sweeteners as an alternative. Here are some suggestions to help you limit your intake:

  • Create a refreshing drink by muddling fresh or frozen berries at the bottom of a glass and add still or sparkling water.

  • Infuse water with fruits, herbs, or vegetables can add a burst of flavour without the need for added sugars. Try combinations like cucumber and mint, strawberry and basil, or orange and ginger.

  • Enjoy the fizzy sensation of sparkling water by combining it with lemon, lime, berries, or tropical fruits. Alternatively, add a small amount of fruit juice.

  • Opt for herbal teas, green tea, black tea, and other varieties of unsweetened tea can be enjoyed hot or cold. You can enhance the flavour by infusing iced tea with fresh fruits or herbs.

Flavoured yoghurts

Are often high in sugar or contain sweeteners.

  • Instead, choose natural yoghurt and personalise it with your own healthy additions. Simply add fresh or frozen fruits of your choice and top with a sprinkle of nuts, seeds, or nut butter for added nutrition!

Chocolate bars

  • Consider creating your own homemade trail mix for a healthier snack option. Simply take a clean jar and combine a variety of nuts, seeds, coconut curls, chopped dried fruit, and some dark chocolate pieces. By choosing this alternative, you can still enjoy the goodness of a tasty snack while nourishing your body with wholesome ingredients.

In baking

There are several natural alternatives that can add sweetness and enhance the flavour of your dishes. Consider incorporating these options into your recipes:

  • Ripe bananas: Mash up ripe bananas to add natural sweetness and moisture to muffins, bread, and cakes.

  • Apple sauce/stewed apple: Use apple sauce or stewed apple as a substitute for sugar and oil in certain recipes. It adds moisture and a subtle sweetness.

  • Dates: Puree or finely chop dates to use as a natural sweetener in baking. They add a rich, caramel-like flavour.

  • Coconut products: Incorporate shredded coconut or coconut flakes to provide natural sweetness and texture to cookies, bars, and granola.

  • Pureed fruit: Pureed fruits like prunes, apricots, or peaches can be used as a natural sweetener in baking, imparting both sweetness and moisture.

By using these natural alternatives, you can reduce the amount of refined sugar in your baked goods while still enjoying treats.

Be mindful of hidden sugars

Sugar can be found in surprising sources such as bread, cereals, soups, and sauces.

  • Always read labels and opt for products with a lower sugar content. Alternatively, you can create your own homemade versions, like this delicious 'hidden veg' pasta sauce recipe by The Medicinal Chef.

Key Takeaway Messages:

  1. Instead of relying on non-sugar sweeteners, the guideline encourages reducing the intake of free sugars and opting for naturally occurring sweeteners found in fruit. Choosing whole, unprocessed foods and beverages promotes a healthier eating pattern.

  2. While the guideline is primarily intended for policymakers and program managers, individuals can translate the recommendations into practical actions. Examples include reducing the consumption of sugary drinks, personalising natural yoghurt with fruits and nuts, making homemade trail mix instead of chocolate bars, and using natural alternatives like ripe bananas, apple sauce, dates, coconut products, and pureed fruits in baking.

  3. Understanding the guideline empowers people to make informed choices about their health. However, it's crucial to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. It's about finding what works best for you, incorporating sustainable habits for long-term well-being, and not feeling overwhelmed by media messages. Focus on the bigger picture, where dietary patterns play a key role. Aim for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fibre, and containing a variety of plant-based foods rather than isolating sweeteners. Food should be a positive source of pleasure, not fear.

I hope you find these tips valuable as you progress towards a healthier way of eating. If you or a loved one would like nutrition support, advice, and encouragement, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us at The Cancer Dietitian for a consultation. I would be delighted to support you on your journey towards better health and well-being.

Telephone: 020 8064 2865

Appointments: book here

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