Low calorie sweeteners could have a greater role in sugar reduction and food reformulation

Highlights from the Sugar Reduction Summit, London, 22nd September 2016

The Sugar Reduction Summit took place for a third consecutive year in London on 22nd September and was attended by more than 150 policymakers, public health experts, industry representatives, scientists and health professionals. Bringing together a unique mix of stakeholders, this year the Sugar Reduction Summit included an interesting session which aimed to look into the role of low calorie sweeteners in sugar reduction.

With the participation of Prof Peter Rogers (University of Bristol), Prof Alison Gallagher (Ulster University), Dr Charlotte Hardman (University of Liverpool) and Dr Kavita Karnik (Tate & Lyle), the panel covered a wide range of topics, including the latest research on the benefits of low calorie sweeteners on body weight, consumer perceptions and attitudes, their role from a public health perspective, as well as the challenges that the food industry faces in food reformulation and sugar reduction.

Are low calorie sweeteners helpful in weight management? A systematic review of the evidence

Opening up the session, Prof Peter Rogers, Professor of Biological Psychology in University of Bristol (UK) presented evidence in support of the role of low calorie sweeteners in weight management, based on his recent scientific work which includes a systematic review and meta-analysis that explores the effects of low calorie sweetener consumption on energy intake and body weight. In this study, Rogers et al. analysed the available data from 90 animal studies, 12 prospective cohort studies, 129 comparisons in short term experimental studies, and 9 long-term RCT’s and concluded in his final remarks that “overall, the balance of evidence clearly indicates that the consumption of low calorie sweeteners in place of sugar, in children and adults, leads to reduced energy intake and body weight, and possibly also compared to water”.

Beliefs about low calorie sweeteners predict behaviour and consumption of low calorie sweetened foods

The lack of data with regard to how beliefs and attitudes of consumers towards low calorie sweetened products might influence subsequent behavioural responses to the consumption of these products was highlighted in the next interesting topic covered by Dr Charlotte Hardman, lecturer in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool. In her talk, Dr Hardman presented for the first time at the Sugar Reduction Summit the preliminary results of the SWITCH study, an ongoing randomised clinical trial which is assessing the effects of low calorie sweetened beverages compared to water during active weight loss and weight management over a two-year period. As part of this study, the role of beliefs and attitudes about low calorie sweeteners in determining consumption patterns and behaviours was examined. Based on the preliminary findings of the study, frequent consumers of low calorie sweetened drinks believe these are palatable and effective in controlling appetite and body weight. Furthermore, as probably expected, positive beliefs about low calorie sweeteners predicted quantity of diet beverages consumed in the lab, but interestingly, participants with more positive beliefs about low calorie sweetened beverages consumed fewer calories from beverages overall than participants with neutral/ negative beliefs.

Low calorie sweeteners and the public health perspective

Opening up her talk, Prof Alison Gallagher, Professor of public health nutrition in Ulster University, looked into the role of low calorie sweeteners from a public health perspective. With obesity being one of the most prominent public health challenges, and the emerging need to limit our overall sugar intake, low calorie sweeteners could play a bigger role and facilitate sustainable adherence to recent recommendations regarding sugar reductions. Prof Gallagher also highlighted that low calorie sweeteners safety has been confirmed by regulatory bodies around the world, including the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO); World Health Organisation (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA); and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). With regard to public health, the challenge within our diet is not the safety of low calorie sweeteners or the actual intake which is well below the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), but rather more likely to be the potential impacts of consuming too much energy and/or an unhealthy dietary pattern. Closing her presentation, Prof Gallagher presented preliminary data from an ongoing study examining the role of awareness on perceptions about low calorie sweeteners, showing that the higher the awareness the greater the percentage of consumers that acknowledge the usefulness of low calorie sweeteners.

Regulatory and technical challenges in sugar reduction: The Industry perspective

Being the last speaker in this session, Dr Kavita Karnik reminded the audience why calorie reduction is needed and presented interesting data from consumer research showing that sugar ranks first on the list of what European consumers are trying to decrease in their diet, with 41% stating that they try to reduce sugar intake. In her final remarks, Dr Karnik concluded that sugar reduction is more complicated than ‘just taking the sugar out’. There are a number of technical challenges, while at the same time the current regulatory environment limits the opportunities of sugar reduction. However, the good news is that innovations from the food and beverage industry have provided an extended number of helpful alternatives in the recent years, with a range of low calorie sweeteners, either used alone or in sweetener blends, to be a useful tool in food reformulation efforts.

A panel debate on the role of low calorie sweeteners in sugar reduction followed the lectures of the experts and also included, in addition to the above speakers, Mr Jean Savigny (Keller and Heckman LLP). The key take-away message of this insightful panel discussion is that all stakeholders, including policy makers, industry and scientists, need to work more closely together to step up the pace in sugar reduction and achieve the common goal of improving the public health outcomes. Furthermore, the need to educate healthcare professionals so that in their turn they can educate consumers has also been highlighted from the panel as an important strategy in increasing consumer awareness on the safety and benefits of low calorie sweeteners.

Used in place of sugars in foods and drinks, low calorie sweeteners provide the consumer with greater choice of lower calorie, sweet tasting products, thus helping people to meet the public health recommendation about limiting sugar intake in everyday diet.