The replacement of sugar with non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) in food and beverages does not help with weight control, according to The World Health Organization (WHO).

The use of NSS are widespread across food and beverages, with aspartame, stevia and saccharin commonly added by manufacturers to cut the sugar content of their products.

However, WHO analysis taken from a systematic review of available evidence suggests the use of NSS does not lead to weight loss over time, and may even contribute to a host of other health issues.

In new guidance issued this week, the body also said that long-term use of NSS such as aspartame could also raise the risk of contracting various health problems including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term. People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugars intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, 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.”

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The WHO guidance to reduce sweetness intake applies to all consumers except those with pre-existing diabetes. It does not, however, apply to personal care and hygiene products containing NSS, such as toothpaste, skin cream and medications.

In total, WHO researchers examined data from 283 separate studies conducted in adults, children, pregnant women or mixed populations.

One drawback of the available evidence, it noted, was that people who eat and drink food products containing sweeteners could be more at risk for obesity or diabetes in the first place.

It added, however, that even when controlling for this possibilities, studies continued to find a link between NNS usage and negative health effects.

Responding to the WHO, the International Sweeteners Association (IWA) said it believed “it is a disservice to not recognise the public health benefits of low/no calorie sweeteners”.

In a statement, an IWA spokesperson sought to cast doubt on the accuracy of the analysis undertaken, stating it was based on “low certainty evidence from observational studies, which are at high risk of reverse causality”.

The spokesperson said: “There has been an overwhelming amount of scientific literature supporting low/no calorie sweeteners’ utility for weight management, including the WHO-commissioned systematic review itself. 

“The ISA joins others, including relevant government agencies around the globe who have responded to the public consultation on the draft guideline expressing their concerns about the conclusions and rationale used by WHO.”