PETALING JAYA: On May 15, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new guideline on non-sugar sweeteners, recommending against their use to control body weight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases.
The organisation said a systematic review of evidence suggested that the use of sweeteners does not offer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children.
Speaking to FMT recently, nutritionist Oo Yi Qian agreed that sugar-free products are not the “magic pill” most people expect when it comes to long-term weight loss.
Oo, from the social enterprise Plant Based Health Alliance, said sugar substitutes do not help with long-term fat loss as they have a greater “sweetness intensity” compared with regular sugar, making consumers crave more sweet foods.
“It does not satisfy people’s sweet tooth, causing their ‘healthy diet’ to become unsustainable, and they will end up not losing weight,” she said.
In Malaysia, a wide range of food and beverage products are commonly marketed as “low sugar” or “sugar free”, but often contain sweeteners such as acesulfame K, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and stevia.
“Some people think sugar-free products are the healthiest options, and so they eat more of it. But while the sugar is replaced to reduce calories, the products could still be high in fats or salt, which doesn’t contribute to general health.”
While certain research has found that consuming artificial sweeteners has its upsides, long-term studies have shown that those who regularly consume non-sugar sweeteners have an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mortality, Oo added.
Further research has shown that consumption of these sweeteners can negatively impact gut-bacteria communication and balance while worsening insulin sensitivity. Excessive consumption could, therefore, lead to conditions such as bloating, nausea, dizziness and headaches.
According to the national health and morbidity survey in 2019, about half of Malaysian adults are classified as overweight or obese, 20% have diabetes, and one in three has hypertension.
Oo’s statements were echoed by Lin Eng Yan, a senior dietitian at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, who similarly pointed out the link between long-term consumption of non-sugar sweeteners and increased risk of type-2 diabetes.
This is because a higher intake of sweeteners is often linked to a higher body mass index, which in turn increases the risk of obesity.
“There is a lack of evidence suggesting that non-sugar sweeteners can help with weight loss, and the WHO guideline also showed the possible long-term negative effects on health,” she said.
According to her, caloric intake is what really matters when it comes to weight loss. As such, those who wish to shed kilos should gradually reduce their sugar consumption to help their taste buds adapt to decreased sweetness in foods, rather than switch to artificial sweeteners immediately.
She also advised those who insist on consuming food and drink with non-sugar sweeteners to practise moderation.