The WHO backed away from non-sugar sweeteners, such as stevia and saccharin. They are useless for their advertised purposes and can be dangerous, he said.
For decades, stevia has been touted as a ‘miracle’ sweetener, the ‘holy grail’ of sweet foods, or just one of those ‘healthy’ products.
Due to its natural origin, as it comes from the plant of the same name, it was believed that it does not contain any calories and is safe to sweeten coffee, desserts and any other type of food.
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But that was until May 15, 2023, when the World Health Organization (WHO) reviewed more scientific evidence on artificial sweeteners, including stevia and saccharin.
According to the WHO, none provide long-term health benefits and, moreover, excessive consumption can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even death in adults.
“Unsweetened sweeteners are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value,” said Francesco Branca, WHO’s director of nutrition and food safety.
Therefore, the entity recommends not to use them. But what components are in stevia and saccharin? And what are its origins?
Both saccharin and stevia are part of the group of so-called artificial sweeteners, meaning they do not come from processing sugarcane.
Sugar substitute products fall into two categories: those derived from alcohol and those that are overly sweet.
The first category contains chemicals such as acesulfame potassium, aspartame, advantame or cyclamates, which are used in soft drinks, processed foods and even toothpaste.
These substances are 25 to 100% sweeter than sugar, and contain up to two calories per gram.
Whereas stevia and saccharin are in the second group and until recently it was believed that they were not ‘fattening’ and were suitable for diabetics or people with heart disease. But no.
- Stevia, the ‘natural’ plant
The Guaraní people of Paraguay have been using this sweetener for over 1500 years.
The Guarani and other communities in Brazil use stevia, a plant extract obtained from the leaves of a small, green leafy plant.
The plant’s scientific name is Stevia rebaudiana, and it is found on the Amazon border between Paraguay and Brazil.
In 2011 it was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an artificial sweetener, leading the way to popularize its consumption.
Stevia’s ‘sweetness’ comes from steviol glycosides, which are extracted from the leaves through a similar process to sugar cane.
In particular, chemists extract a glycoside called rebaudioside A, which is marketed as a sweetener under the name E-960.
According to the first chemical analysis of stevia, performed in 1900, this glycoside is capable of sweetening 200 times more than white sugar.
Currently, stevia is used in more than 14,000 products, and is consumed by more than 5,000 million people in 65 countries. It even has an institute that talks about its benefits for health.
Two of our favorite #stevia facts. There's a lot of learning happening here today. @expbio #Nutrition2017 pic.twitter.com/yNNjLqjcCS
— Stevia Institute (@SteviaInstitute) April 22, 2017
- saccharin also contains metals
Saccharin is made from a variety of sources, typically up to 20,000 times sweeter than sugar.
Some products containing saccharin, such as the well-known ‘Sweet & Low’ brand, leave a bitter or metallic taste at the end and this is due to the diversity of the constituents.
It is obtained by chemical synthesis of toluene, a liquid hydrocarbon derived from benzene, and other substances, such as phthalic anhydride or phthalic acid.
According to an article in the academic journal The Conversation, saccharin was discovered by Russian chemist Konstantin Fahlberg in 1879.
It was used extensively in World War I, when the logistics and production of natural sugar were complicated.
It was not until the 1960s that scientists discovered its commercial utility and packaged it so that it could reach household tables.
Moreover, this is not the first time that the consumption of saccharin has been discouraged. Scientific studies as far back as 1978 link the sweetener to cases of cancer and diabetes.