A European analysis of 56 studies done on non-sugar sweeteners found "no compelling evidence" that they bolster health or assist people with losing weight. The review, funded by the World Health Organization, was published Jan. 2 by the British Medical Journal.
University researchers in France, Germany and Hungary completed the analysis to assist WHO with issuing guidelines on the use of non-sugar sweeteners, Nutrition Insight reported. Their review looked at studies comparing no or low consumption of non-sugar sweeteners by healthy adults and children with higher consumption levels. They found few differences between them, regardless of other health factors. They added, however, that many of the studies were of low quality and that longer-term ones were needed, Bakery and Snacks said.
The use of non-sugar sweeteners such as aspartame and stevia is increasing as Public Health England looks to cut sugar content in many food products by 20% next year, Nutrition Insight said. Behind this effort are growing concerns over obesity and diabetes, Bakery and Snacks noted, with several European countries — the U.K., Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland and Estonia — already introducing sugar taxes. In the U.S., the weight of sugars added to a product is becoming part of the revamped Nutrition Facts label.
The results of this analysis shouldn't come as a surprise, particularly due to the limitations of current research noted by the reviewers. Assessing the benefits and negative aspects of non-sugar sweeteners is difficult, given the limited and conflicting evidence available. Larger groups should be studied during longer time periods to render the results meaningful. Also, they pointed out, most studies involved a single sweetener, which doesn't reflect typical use.
Still, several industry and other groups criticized the review, saying there were limitations to it and other factors need to be considered before drawing conclusions about the benefits of non-sugar sweeteners.
Fred Brouns of the Netherlands' Maastricht University’s Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences told Nutrition Insight that non-sugar sweeteners are better for dental health than sucrose and also have the benefit of no calories, and therefore should limit weight gain. He added that other health and lifestyle factors play a role and should be considered, and that the review results showed a "lack of long-term controlled studies."
Other critics included the Calorie Control Council, an industry association that issued a statement countering the study review findings.
"However, in contrast to the conclusions made by the study authors, the highest quality scientific evidence shows that the consumption of [low- and no-calorie sweeteners] results in reductions in body weight, does not lead to weight gain and does not cause cravings leading to increased intake," the group said.
As the debate over the relative value of non-sugar sweeteners continues, and with more research potentially forthcoming, it could be tough for food and beverage manufacturers to know how to proceed. Should they switch to sugar alternatives or simply reduce the use of sucrose in their formulations? Many have already taken one of those paths in advance of — or in response to — consumer trends regarding sugar.
Those who create, make and use alternative sweeteners may also wonder about the best tactic to take in light of this review, although initial responses indicate they plan to forge ahead by focusing on the positives.
Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, told Nutrition Insight there wasn't any "solid evidence of any major safety issues" involving these products. He added that the U.K. government and Public Health England had endorsed their use last year to aid in reducing sugar consumption and help consumers with weight issues.
"Low- and no-calorie sweeteners allow consumers to enjoy sweetness while managing sugars and calories in their everyday lives. Because they taste good and are low- or calorie-free, people are more likely to combine them with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle and stick to their dietary goals for weight management," Partington told the publication.