soft drinks sugar tax

Government health advisers are set to scrutinise the evidence on the use of artificial sweeteners, following last month’s controversial report by the World Health Organization claiming they posed long-term health risks.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, whose bombshell report on sugar in 2015 was the main precursor to the launch of the soft drinks sugar levy, said it planned to work with the Food Standards Agency to see if the ingredients fell through a gap in monitoring.

The committee said it had been keeping a “watching brief” on evidence around sweeteners, amid evidence their use had increased hugely since the tax came into force in 2017. However, the WHO report had exposed an issue of “policy concern”, it said, despite the Department of Health’s Office for Health Improvements & Disparities disputing the WHO’s recommendations.

In a systematic review covering sweeteners including aspartame, stevia and saccharin, the organisation found artificial sweeteners should not be used as part of long-term diets and could contribute to health risks,

The WHO report found they could themselves increase the risk of problems, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, over the long term.

However, it conceded further research was needed and stressed the findings were a “conditional recommendation”, meaning they were based on “evidence of low certainty overall”. 

A report to SACN says: “WHO’s decision to almost exclusively focus on longer-term evidence is controversial and was subject to criticism when the draft was issued for consultation.

“Commentaries have noted that the longer-term studies are based on much less robust evidence and observed associations may be due to confounding factors, for example, the diets and lifestyles of people who consume more sweeteners.”

But it added: “This is an issue of policy concern given that sweeteners may be used as a response to the sugary drinks industry levy and other actions to reduce population average intakes of free sugars.”

It said the publication of the WHO report was a “good starting point” for consideration over whether the use of sweeteners needed more scrutiny.

The International Sweeteners Association has criticised the WHO report for failing to recognise low and no-calorie sweeteners’ role in reducing sugar and calorie intake and aiding in weight control.

“Food and beverage companies have reformulated products as part of a comprehensive, global effort to meet public health recommendations (including from the WHO) for sugar reduction,” said ISA chairman Bob Peterson. “Low and no-calorie sweeteners have enabled this innovation and ultimately contribute to the creation of healthier food environments by allowing people to enjoy food and drinks with less sugar and fewer calories, while still meeting their taste preferences.”