Business News/ Industry / Manufacturing/  The bitter truth about artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners have emerged as the go-to substitute for Indians who want to indulge their sweet tooth in a ‘healthy’ way. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) last week cautioned against freely replacing sugar with non-sugar substitutes. Mint explains:

Artificial sweeteners data country wise.
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Artificial sweeteners data country wise.

What is the WHO recommendation?

The WHO has warned against the use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) such as aspartame, sucralose and stevia to lose weight or cut the risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). It links prolonged use with “potential undesirable effects". Emphasizing the need to cut sugar intake, WHO said artificial sweeteners have little long-term benefit in cutting fat in adults or children, citing evidence from a review and meta-analyses of randomized control trials. The guidance applies to everyone except for those with diabetes. Personal care and hygiene products such as toothpaste and medication are excluded.

What does this mean for Indians?

Indians love sugar. The sugar and sweetener sector in India grew 4% in volume terms in 2022, with the market expected to grow at an average annual pace of 2.6% in value terms in the next four years, according to data from Euromonitor International. Around 13.2 million tonnes of sugar and sweeteners were sold in India last year. It is, then, no surprise that diet-related NCDs such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are rising quickly in the country with the health ministry estimating a $3.5 trillion loss to economic output due to NCDs between 2012 and 2030.

Artificial sweeteners
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Artificial sweeteners

What’s the problem with sweeteners?

NSS are sugar substitutes made from chemicals that have little-to-no calories and are generally marketed as aiding weight loss, maintenance of healthy weight and controlling blood glucose in individuals with diabetes. However, WHO says higher, long-term intake of NSS causes an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality.

What does the Indian regulator say?

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), has allowed five artificial sweeteners— saccharin sodium, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose and neotame—for use by the food industry and listed maximum permitted levels. These are used in items such as juices, beverages, sweets, chewing gum and confectionery. Every ad for sugar-free items have to state the names of artificial sweeteners it contains. It is yet to be seen whether the regulator will make any changes to its recommendations now.

How can you stay away from sugar?

‘Go natural’ is the mantra that health experts recommend. “People need to consider other ways to reduce sugar-free 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. Fruits, dates, whole grains and minimally processed unsweetened food and beverages are better alternatives. A gradual training of the taste buds to adapt to items with less or no sugar is another helpful method.

Nandita Venkatesan
Nandita Venkatesan is a data journalist at Mint, and has a keen interest in understanding the usefulness of data in driving sound public discourse and informing policymaking. She has over four years of experience across journalism and health research. She previously worked with the Economic Times, Mumbai, and the Vaccine Confidence Project in the UK. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Nandita also pursued a masters’ in public policy from University of Oxford as Chevening-Weidenfeld Hoffmann scholar.
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Updated: 23 May 2023, 12:22 AM IST
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