Don’t use artificial sweeteners for weight loss, says WHO

New scientific research shows that non-nutritive, or ‘artificial’, sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, saccharin and even plant-based stevia cause harmful changes in the composition of our gut microbiome. (Photo: iStock)

Artificial sweeteners may not help people lose weight, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in new guidelines that warned against products like diet sodas. 

The WHO’s advice is based on a scientific review that found products containing aspartame and stevia — often marketed as diet foods — likely don’t help reduce body fat in the long term.

“People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether,” Francesco Branca, WHO director for nutrition and food safety, said Monday.

Artificial sweeteners were also linked with higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as of dying, according to the WHO.

The new guidance applies to all non-sugar sweeteners, including stevia derivatives and sucralose. Such products have become widely used and are commonly added to processed foods and beverages, like diet soda, or sold on their own.

‘Not Essential’

Artificial sweeteners “are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value”, Branca said. They are also often used to replace sugar in highly processed foods and drinks, and therefore may encourage low-quality diets.

Popular consumer products like Diet Coke and Diet Snapple, rebranded last year to Zero Sugar Snapple, contain aspartame. Keurig Dr Pepper, the maker of Snapple, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Coca-Cola referred Bloomberg to a statement from the Calorie Control Council that called artificial sweeteners “a critical tool that can help consumers manage body weight and reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases”.

The International Sweeteners’ Association, another industry group, said in a statement that it’s “disappointed that the WHO’s conclusions are largely based on low certainty evidence from observational studies”. Observational studies often don’t have safeguards like comparison groups, which can introduce bias into findings.

The new recommendation applies to everyone except those who already have diabetes, the WHO said. The agency issued a draft guideline against sweeteners in July last year, and opened it up to a public consultation.

The WHO has previously advised adults and kids to limit their sugar intake to 10% of total energy consumption, highlighting the connection between less sugar intake and lower body weight.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Louis Eksteen says:

    The “sugar tax” is leading us into a worldwide diabetes pandemic, and probably another spike in new cancers, as we are forced to consume more and more artificial sweeteners at 10x or 100x the previous rates…
    The law of unintended consequences at work again…
    Trying to find food and drink without this toxic stuff, is becoming more difficult by the day. I’d rather pay the tax and consume natural sugar, or go without these days.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Go figure!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.