Aspartame sugar sweetener GettyImages-1080925298

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The flurry of news articles on the topic of aspartame show how unclear and open to interpretation the recommendations are, says Harry Thuillier

As I sat down last week to read the World Health Organization’s report on non-sugar sweeteners, I’ll admit I was anxious. All over LinkedIn, brand founders I like and respect – like Alex Wright of Dash and Huib van Bockel of Tenzing – were condemning the use of sweeteners.

Oppo uses non-sugar sweeteners for a reason. The company was created by my brother and I to allow people to enjoy proper artisanal ice cream without having to consume most of their recommended daily sugar intake in every scoop.

Sugar makes ice cream taste great. But it has a negative impact on our diets – contributing to the twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity, which are more costly to the NHS than Covid. (I know first, or at least second hand; my wife is a GP with a specialism in diabetes and the situation is worsening all the time.)

So instead of taking a sugar shortcut, we spent years researching high-quality ingredients that have the same technological function, such as stevia derived from stevia leaf, and sugar alcohols (containing neither sugar or alcohol) found naturally in plants. This is how we’ve created recipes that have 60% less calories and sugar than the market leader, while hitting the mark on taste. 

Yet here was the WHO suggesting “non-sugar sweeteners” should be avoided. We’re a B Corp, ethical business and I didn’t want to be part of something that could now be ”harmful to health”. This wasn’t looking good.

I read it, all of it. I was relieved. And then annoyed.

Even though studies showed that people lost weight when replacing sugar with non-sugar sweeteners, the WHO recommended against their consumption based on a correlation between obesity and consumption of non-sugar sweeteners.

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This is backwards causation. It’s like saying fires are caused by firefighters spraying water, because you often see them spraying water at a fire. Typically, people who are looking to lose weight are cutting back on their sugar intake – and replacing that sugar with sweeteners. We know nothing about their overall calories or exercise. Let’s not blame something that’s helping.

The outrage came on page 16. Here, the WHO admitted there was very limited evidence for sweeteners being unhealthy – even with 50 randomised control trials. But it still made the damning recommendation. It tarred all non-sugar sweeteners – stevia is very different to aspartame – with the same brush.

The WHO doesn’t seem to understand the implications of what it is saying. People already know sugar is bad for them. Now we’re telling them to stop eating sweeteners too. So everyone will just cut anything sweet, right?

Of course not. People can’t resist billions of dollars of advertising appealing to our evolutionary desire for sugary food. And if people give up sweeteners, they will likely return to sugar.

Kate Moss Diet Coke

Diet Coke is perhaps the most famous drink to contain aspartame

Depriving ourselves of sweet indulgence is only for the most puritanical. We’re human. We will always take pleasure from desserts, ice cream and confectionery.

This is where non-sugar sweeteners provide a solution. While they don’t have health benefits in themselves, they do act as a replacement for sugar, and reducing that will improve just about every measure of health.

As manufacturers did so well with salt, we should all be gradually reducing sweetness in our food  – and our drinks – so that tastes move towards less sweet options.

The WHO should direct its analytical muscle to a study that isolates reverse causality on the effect of sweeteners before making scapegoat recommendations that will distract from healthy food innovation and send consumers straight back to consuming tablespoons of sugar.

The flurry of news articles on the topic of aspartame today show how unclear and open to interpretation recommendations are. While we don’t use artificial sweeteners like aspartame, it highlights the growing necessity for clearer, more evidence-based research into the subject.

Taken as it is, the WHO recommendation is at best naïve, and at worst dangerous.