The agency noted that the guidance isn’t a recommendation to eat more real sugar instead, but to reduce the overall sweetness of the daily diet.
“People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugar intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages,” says Francesco Branca, WHO director for nutrition and food safety.
Sugar substitutes “have no nutritional value,” Branca added. “People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health.”
The recommendation applies to all people except individuals with preexisting diabetes, who may still benefit from using sugar substitutes.
The guidance is aimed at individual sweetener packets that people sprinkle into their morning coffee as well as the range of sugar substitutes that food companies are increasingly adding to processed foods and beverages, including breads, cereals, yogurts and snack bars.
Common non-sugar sweeteners named by WHO include acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and stevia derivatives.
The Calorie Control Council, a food industry group, said in a statement that it strongly disagrees with the WHO’s recommendation and that the safety of non-sugar sweeteners has been firmly established. It claimed low- and no-calorie sweeteners have been proven to help with weight management, promote oral health and help cut back on calorie and sugar intake.
The recommendation “does not provide the full picture regarding the efficacy of these ingredients and has the potential to negatively impact public health,” the council’s statement said.
Scientists used to think that nonnutritive sweeteners were largely inert, and the main benefit was to help people cut calories from their daily diet. But more recent research suggests that fake sugars can have a deleterious effect on health.
One study found that sugar substitutes caused changes in both the function and composition of the gut microbiome, the communities of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in the intestines.
A large study published in the BMJ found that a high intake of artificial sweeteners increased the risk of cardiovascular problems such as strokes and coronary heart disease.
The WHO noted that its recommendation is “conditional” because a number of factors, including differences in the health of study participants, may have influenced some of the findings.
The Calorie Control Council seized on the “conditional” label, noting the classification is used when the evidence supporting the guidance is “considered less certain.”
“A substantial body of evidence shows that low- and no-calorie sweeteners provide effective and safe options to reduce sugar and calorie consumption,” said Robert Rankin, president of the council. “Along with exercise and a healthy diet, low- and no-calorie sweeteners are a critical tool that can help consumers manage body weight and reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases.”
The WHO said its recommendation does not apply to personal care and hygiene products containing non-sugar sweeteners, such as toothpaste, skin cream and medications.
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