WHO Advises Against Using Non-Sugar Sweeteners for Weight Control

Updated: May 18, 2023

According to the WHO, these sweeteners don't do anything to aid in weight loss.

These days, it can seem like non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) are in everything. From protein shakes to diet soda to baked goods, all sorts of packaged foods use non-sugar sweeteners like aspartame or stevia. And while some sugar substitutes have their advantages, such as preventing metabolic syndrome, they are definitely not a miracle cure for the problems associated with sugar.

One of the most popular reasons people cite for consuming non-sugar sweeteners is to help them lose weight. However, according to an announcement on May 15 from the World Health Organization (WHO), non-sugar sweeteners are not as useful for weight loss as originally thought and may actually be harmful. Here’s everything you need to know about the new guidelines, including which non-sugar sweeteners are affected and which natural sweeteners you can use instead.

What are the new guidelines for non-sugar sweeteners?

In short, the new guidelines from WHO state that they “recommend against the use of NSS to control body weight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).” This rejection of non-sugar sweeteners is based on WHO’s systematic review of all available evidence on the relationship between non-sugar sweeteners and weight loss.

In this review, researchers discovered that not only do non-sugar sweeteners “not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children,” but they may yield “potential undesirable effects long term,” such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and death. Francesco Branca, the director of WHO’s Nutrition and Food Safety Department, adds that “NSS are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value.”

Which non-sugar sweeteners are included in these guidelines?

Overhead of a Cappuccino with fancy foam art and a sugar packet caddy on a blue backgroundSherry Epley/Getty Images

According to WHO’s statement, these guidelines apply to “all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified non-nutritive sweeteners that are not classified as sugars.” These sweeteners may be sold on their own or as part of various manufactured foods and beverages. The most common non-sugar sweeteners are:

  • Acesulfame K
  • Aspartame
  • Advantame
  • Cyclamates
  • Neotame
  • Saccharin
  • Sucralose
  • Stevia (and stevia derivatives)

WHO’s guidelines only apply to food and beverages containing these non-sugar sweeteners. They do not apply to hygiene products containing non-sugar sweeteners, such as toothpaste, or to “low-calorie sugars and sugar alcohols (polyols).” In short, if a sweetener does not contain any calories and is meant for consumption, it is part of these guidelines.

Who are the new guidelines for non-sugar sweeteners for?

Sugar In A Spoon With sugar pile BackgroundDdukang/Getty Images

These new guidelines apply to everyone, except for those people who have pre-existing diabetes. Those with diabetes should speak to their doctors to devise a medical plan for their consumption of sugar and non-sugar sweeteners.

What natural non-sugar sweeteners can I use instead?

Reflecting on what those who currently use non-sugar sweeteners can use instead, Barca advises people to consume “food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit,” or simply opt for “unsweetened food and beverages.” In general, he states that “[p]eople should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health.”

When the craving for sweets strikes, it’s a good idea to turn to natural sweeteners, such as dates, cinnamon or bananas. Additionally, honey is an excellent choice, as it may lower cholesterol and blood sugar, according to a recent study.

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