Rude Health by Vir Sanghvi: Why sweeteners aren’t all made equal
The WHO has advised against using non-sugar sweeteners. But it has created more confusion in the process. Let’s sort it out
I was going to write about the campaign against highly processed foods this week. If you follow nutrition trends, then you will know that this takes a commonsensical position: Try to eat natural foods, not those that have been created in factories. Except that it then ruins the basic message by throwing in excess after excess: You must avoid ketchup because it is made in an industrial plant (as, in fact, are most of the condiments used in the Western world). And, in the general hysteria it creates, it neglects to specify which cooking processes are bad for us. Nor does it set limits on how much ketchup, for instance, is okay and how much is dangerous.
First, let’s be clear about what WHO said. It did not conduct any new research of its own. It was not responding to any sudden and new health emergency. It issued a general statement based, it said, on an examination of around 280 older studies. By rereading these studies, the folks at WHO had concluded that sweeteners did not contribute to weight loss.
Is this realistic? All civilisation is built on cooked food. And throughout the ages, all over the world, people have valued sweet tastes. Human beings are designed to eat sweet things: why else would we have taste receptors for sweetness on our tongues?
Many products labelled as ‘low-sugar’ or ‘sugar-free’ use aspartame. (General rule: except for colas, I never buy a diet product because manufacturers either use cheap sweeteners to make up for the lack of sugar or if it is described as sugar-free, pump up the fat content!)