New WHO Report on Sweeteners: What Should We Be Concerned About?

Sweeteners are used to replace sugar because they have no or lower calories. Are they healthier, though? A new report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) attracted the public's attention to the use of non-sugar sweeteners. In this article, we'll delve into the safety of sweeteners. Read on to learn the WHO's recommendation on non-sugar sweeteners to help you make an informed decision about potential concerns.

Key takeaways:

What are sweeteners?

Sweeteners are used to sweeten foods without using sugar. Many people prefer sweeteners instead of sugar to reduce calorie intake.

Sweeteners have wide use in "sugar-free" and "diet" products. Products that are likely to contain sweeteners are:

  • Soft drinks
  • Powdered drink mixes
  • Candy
  • Puddings
  • Canned foods
  • Jams and jellies
  • Dairy products

You can see if a product contains sweeteners by reading the ingredients. Some commonly used sweeteners, listed in sweetness intensity order, are:

  • Advantame
  • Neotame
  • Thaumatin
  • Saccharin
  • Sucralose
  • Steviol glycosides
  • Luo Han Guo
  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K)

A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has brought attention to the use of non-sugar sweeteners, raising concerns about their safety and potential health implications.

In the guideline, WHO advised against the use of non-sugar sweeteners for weight management or to reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases, with the exception of those with pre-existing diabetes. Instead, the organization advised reducing sugar intake with other methods.

The WHO created the recommendation based on evidence from randomized controlled studies. The short-term studies showed reduced blood sugar, energy intake, and body weight with the use of non-sugar sweeteners. However, the long-term studies with up to 10 years of follow-up showed that high intake of non-sugar sweeteners was linked to an increased risk of noncommunicable diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

This recommendation is only applicable to food and beverages. Medications and some hygiene products also contain small amounts of sweeteners for better palatability.

Lastly, the report recommends reducing sugar intake using naturally sweet foods like fruits.

Are sweeteners safe?

Now, let's address the safety concerns surrounding sweeteners. In the United States, companies are legally obligated to ensure the safety of the sweeteners they use in their products.

FDA-approved sweeteners

Six sweeteners have an acceptable daily intake (ADI) level established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). ADI indicates the safe amount of a substance that can be used daily over a lifetime. Those six sweeteners are:

  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
  • Sucralose
  • Neotame
  • Advantame
  • Saccharin

According to the FDA, if a person's intake of FDA-approved sweeteners stays within the limits of the ADI, there should be no safety concerns.

Sweeteners with GRAS status

Some sweeteners are generally recognized as safe (GRAS). They're made from either fruits or plants. Sweeteners with GRAS status are:

  • Purified extracts of certain steviol glycosides (extracted from the stevia plant)
  • Thaumatin (isolated from the West African Katemfe fruit)
  • Luo Han Guo (extracted from monk fruit)

You may also see D-allulose (also referred to as D-psicose), D-tagatose, and isomaltulose on a product's ingredient list. Those sugars also have GRAS status.

Sugar alcohols

The FDA also allows the use of sugar alcohols, a class of sweeteners. They have lower calories than sugar and do not suddenly increase blood glucose or advance tooth decay.

Sugar alcohols used as sweeteners are:

  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Lactitol
  • Mannitol
  • Erythritol
  • Maltitol

Be careful and check the labels

Do not buy products containing cyclamates and their salts, including calcium cyclamate, sodium cyclamate, magnesium cyclamate, and potassium cyclamate. These sweeteners are prohibited by the FDA.

Aspartame should be limited or not used by people with a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU). Aspartame contains phenylalanine, an amino acid whose accumulation is harmful to people with PKU.

The use of sweeteners is safe for most people within their intended use. However, some people may show adverse reactions or sensitivity to sweeteners. Always consult your doctor if you suspect any adverse reaction caused by sweeteners.

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