Sweet enough? French dismissal of sweetener benefits is a public health pity, says ISA

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

France's concern for what sweetener consumption might mean for sweetness perception is a 'false problem', says the International Sweeteners Association (ISA)
France's concern for what sweetener consumption might mean for sweetness perception is a 'false problem', says the International Sweeteners Association (ISA)

Related tags: Sugar

The French food agency failed to take on the full health picture and missed a good opportunity for public health change with its dismissal of sweetener benefits, according to the International Sweeteners Association (ISA).

Dr Hervé Nordmann, chairman of chair of ISA’s scientific committee and director of scientific affairs for Europe, Middle East and Africa for sweetener firm Ajinomoto, told us it was “a bit crazy”​ to look at sweeteners without looking at sugar and sedentary lifestyles at the same time.

The assessment​ by the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) said there was currently no conclusive evidence for the beneficial effects of intense sweetener consumption on the incidence of type 2 diabetes, blood sugar management for diabetics, sweetness perception or weight management.

As a result it concluded that recommending intense sweeteners as a way to reduce sugar intakes could not be justified as a public health strategy in the general population.

“There is a need to communicate properly, and I’m disappointed ANSES missed the opportunity to do that. It’s a pity,”​ Nordmann said. He said the danger now was that people may take this assessment to mean sweeteners were a no-go and therefore turn back to calorific sugar.

He said ANSES was trying to turn people away from the taste of sugar, a pursuit that would be futile given our inborn preference for sweetness.

A question of perception 

ANSES said reducing national sugar intakes should not be achieved by recommending sweeteners but instead an “overall reduction in the sweet taste of food, and from an early age.

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As such, ANSES recommends that beverages with sweeteners and sugar are not a substitute for water consumption.”

However, Nordmann said this stance was unrealistic. 

He said there was no proof that sweetener consumption increased our sweetness perception ‘saturation point’, i.e. when we decide we have had enough. He did concede that it was widely accepted that sweetness differed between regions, however he said this was likely due to genetics and the amount of sweetness receptors individuals had, not a change to sweetness perception due to higher or lower exposure to the taste.

He said ANSES’s concern for what sweetener consumption might mean for sweetness perception was a “false problem” ​as a result.

Say when

The report also said there was no conclusive evidence suggesting sweeteners posed health risks for diabetics or pregnant women or increased the risk of cancer.

In this area, as in that for nutritional benefits, the authority said long-term data was lacking.

Nordmann said he was please about the cancer risk statement, but suggested the report revealed ANSES’s inexperience within the nutritional risk assessment, since toxicology information had also been mixed in.

He added: “We’re constantly trying to produce more data. We have 24 controlled trials for aspartame. The problem is they haven’t told us when enough is enough.”

Related topics: Policy

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