A love-hate relationship? Sweeteners can be part of a successful sugar reduction strategy, experts claim

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07 Nov 2018 --- New scientific studies presented at the International Sweeteners Association’s (ISA) Conference in London yesterday, support current evidence that low-calorie sweeteners can aid in sugar reduction, cravings management and weight loss. The latest research on low-calorie sweeteners’ use, benefits and role in the diet were discussed at the 3rd ISA conference themed: “The science behind low-calorie sweeteners: where evidence meets policy.”

With the mission to inform on the most up-to-date nutritional and scientific information on low-calorie sweeteners, the ISA invited 17 internationally renowned experts to share their updates on the role of low-calorie sweeteners can affect the diet and overall health of the consumer. 

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Stefan Gates, TV presenter and writer,
moderated the ISA event

Moderating the event, Stefan Gates, a UK-based TV presenter and writer, tells FoodIngredientsFirst: “There are often misconceptions around sweeteners in the industry and this is created by the media. This means that there is a love, hate and confusion around sweeteners – the public want to reduce calories and the governments want to reduce sugar intake. Low-calorie sweeteners are a pretty good tool as one of the ways to solve that. A lot of people say we should stop consuming sugar or sweet things in general, but we are pre-dispositioned to want and enjoy sweetness in foods.”

Gates muses that perhaps it’s the conflicting messages from the media and the food industry that is damaging to our health in the long run. “Food producers want their customers to be happy and their food to taste good so why not use low-calorie sweeteners? The only decent advice you can give people is to spread the load of what you eat and drink across as many diff things as possible. If that includes artificial sweeteners, if it’s a really useful component in people’s diets who are looking to consume less sugar, then shouldn’t that be a good thing?” he adds.

When asked about the potential for natural high potency sweeteners, such as stevia, he sees a strong opportunity to meet both the calorie reduction and clean label trends. “What is interesting about stevia to me, is not its function but the fact that it can bridge the gap for consumers. If you are putting the word ‘natural’ next to something, it can bring the idea that it is healthy or healthier. If that is what it takes to shift people and make changes to their diet and take control then that has got to be a good thing,” he notes.

Key take-outs from the event also included:
• Low-calorie sweeteners can help meet public health recommendations about sugar intake reduction and are linked to a higher-quality diet, according to new population studies. 
• Evidence from human clinical trials consistently supports that low-calorie sweeteners can aid weight loss and glucose control, when used as a replacement for sugar over sufficient time. 
• The safety of low-calorie sweeteners remains confirmed by food safety authorities around the world. 

Opening the conference with a keynote speech, Prof. Adam Drewnowski, Director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle, presented recent studies showing that low-calorie sweeteners’ use is related to a higher overall diet quality and can help people meet nutrition recommendations to reduce excess sugar intake. 

During a session on the role of low-calorie sweeteners in weight management, current evidence was shown to support the intended benefits of low-calorie sweeteners as being helpful in reducing excess calories from sugars and thus in weight loss. Presenting for the first time outcomes of network and pairwise meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials, which provide a better protection against bias, Dr. John Sievenpiper, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, concluded that low-calorie sweeteners have the intended benefit and clarified that one shouldn’t expect that low-calorie sweeteners will cause weight loss by themselves, but can be useful if used to replace sugars leading to a reduction of energy intake over sufficient periods of time. 

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Prof Adam Drewnowski, Director of the Center
for Public Health Nutrition, University of Washington 

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Sievenpiper notes that the sweeteners debate around weight management is a very topical debate and area of interest. “There is a lot of controversy and often concerns that low-calorie beverage formats may not deliver the intended benefit which is to improve weight management, so we wanted to look at the evidence very clearly from a public health perspective and clinical guidelines. We found that there are some considerations that have been overlooked and leads to ‘reverse causality.’ This suggests that people consuming low-calorie beverages are doing it as a tool to help them with their weight goals in order to mitigate their risk. It’s actually because of the high risk that they are taking low calorie sweetened beverages. So you get this issue which isn’t always appreciated or considered in many of the studies that we see.”

Another topical subject covered during the third session of the ISA conference was the role of low-calorie sweeteners in diabetes management. The discussion evidenced that replacing sugar with low-calorie sweeteners can also be a helpful strategy to aid glucose control in people with diabetes. 

Reviewing all available published data, Dr. Hugo Laviada-Molina, a clinical endocrinologist and Professor at the Marist University of Mérida, Mexico, concluded that, “Evidence from human clinical trials confirm that low-calorie sweeteners do not affect blood glucose levels and other indexes of glycemia.” 

Moreover, addressing the much-debated topic of low-calorie sweeteners and gut microbiota, Prof. Ian Rowland, Professor at Reading University, UK, concluded that, while frequently discussed in media, current evidence does not support that low-calorie sweeteners have an adverse effect on insulin sensitivity or on overall health via impact on gut microbiota. 

Throughout the day, experts emphasized that the safety of approved low calorie sweeteners has been repeatedly confirmed by regulatory authorities around the world such as the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/ World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 

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Dr. Rebeca López-García,
an experienced consultant toxicologist from Mexico

Dr. Rebeca López-García, an experienced consultant toxicologist from Mexico, noted that “We can be confident about the safety of low-calorie sweeteners currently approved for use in foods and beverages, as all sweeteners have undergone rigorous safety evaluations by food safety authorities prior to their approval for use, resulting in the assignment of an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI).” 

The conference ended with a lively panel discussion aimed at addressing the role of low-calorie sweeteners in sugar reduction from a public health perspective. As summarized by the chair of the session, Prof. Peter Rogers, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol, UK, the panel speakers concluded that: “By replacing sugars, low-calorie sweeteners can be a useful tool for food reformulation and a helpful way, among a pool of other strategies, for managing current issues of public health concern, notably sugar reduction and obesity.” 

With this conclusion in mind, the ISA will continue to work, together with other stakeholders, “to make sure that positive solutions will be found to the global challenges posed by non-communicable diseases,” says the organization. 

According to Federica Femia, Junior Communications Manager at the ISA: “Since the last conference a lot of research has been published highlighting the benefits of low-calorie sweeteners. We want to share the current evidence around low calories sweeteners and public health recommendations that have been developed since the last event,” she tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “We are committed to continuing to share scientific information around low-calorie sweeteners.”

By Elizabeth Green, in London.

To contact our editorial team please email us at editorial@cnsmedia.com

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