The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against the long-term use of artificial sweeteners, stating that they are ineffective in reducing body fat and could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults. The recommendation applies to all people except individuals with pre-existing diabetes and includes all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified non-nutritive sweeteners that are not classified as sugars found in manufactured foods and beverages or sold on their own to be added to foods and beverages by consumers. The WHO's warning is based on a review of available evidence and is part of a set of guidelines for healthy diets being rolled out. Examples of the sweeteners include aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and stevia.
The WHO's announcement contradicts previous studies that have said these sweeteners don't offer any health benefits but also do not cause harm. Nutrition research is constantly evolving, and findings are being updated with stronger data.
The recommendation from the WHO does not directly affect any individual country's policy. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, might take this guidance into account and institute its concerns or tweak labeling. However, it is not under any obligation to do so.
The International Sweeteners Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the industry, called the WHO's recommendation a disservice to consumers. "Low/no calorie sweeteners are one of the most thoroughly researched ingredients in the world and continue to be a helpful tool to manage obesity, diabetes and dental diseases," the association said in a statement.
The WHO's recommendation is currently considered conditional, and policy decisions based on this recommendation may require substantive discussion in specific country contexts, linked to the extent of consumption in different age groups. The recommendation doesn't extend as far as personal care and hygiene products that include artificial sugars such as toothpaste, skin creams, and medications. It also doesn't include low-calorie sugars and sugar alcohols, which come from sugar itself. The WHO director for nutrition and food safety said that non-sugar sweeteners "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."