The agency has made this statement in the wake of the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline earlier this year that made a ‘conditional recommendation’ against the use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) to control body weight or reduce the risk of non-commmunicable diseases such as diabetes.
“FSSAI has already laid down safety limits for these NSS additives to be used in various food products,” the agency stated via a formal statement, which FoodNavigator-Asia has viewed.
“Stricter labelling requirements are in place which [for such food products], requiring due declarations on the food labels along with the names of such sweeteners, whether these have been added either singly or in combination with others.
“These are thoroughly scrutinised before any NSS are allowed in food products, keeping in view of the Indian scenario, the global regulatory practices & risk assessments carried out by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives.
“Please note that FSSAI has also not recommended these NSS for weight loss or the maintenance of healthy weight, nor as a means of controlling blood glucose in individuals with diabetes.
The NSS in question here include a wide range across both caloric and non-caloric sweeteners (that contain less than 2% of the caloric value of sucrose per equivalent unit of sweetening capacity) such as stevia, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharins, sucralose and sorbitol.
“The WHO has already highlighted in its report that the guideline is still conditional, and there is still a need for country-specific, meaningful input – [FSSAI] has taken cognisance and [concur] that country-specific studies are needed to explore the impact of NSS on metabolic processes as well as its links to other diseases,” it said.
“In the absence of substantive established evidence on the safety of NSS, FSSAI is retaining the existing limits that have already been laid out in the current standards.”
‘Conditional’ recommendations in this case refer to a lack of certainty regarding the guideline or recommendation being made, with the certainty the findings in this case still ranging from ‘low’ to ‘very low’.
The FSSAI Scientific Panel comprising academic and scientific experts further stressed that local context needs to be in place before any conclusions can be made, particularly when it comes to India which has a very different staple diet from the western context.
“The dietary habits of Indians are entirely different and the WHO document has not made any reference or study conducted on an Asian population, particularly the Indian population,” stated the panel.
“In a nutshell, this guideline is still inconclusive and several important factors have not yet been considered [so] no sufficient or substantive data is available to revise existing FSSAI standards.
“[We recommend] that this WHO guideline be used to educate and create awareness amongst consumers to consume artificially sweetened products in moderation.”
Why not turn back to sugar?
The local sugar industry body Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA) expounded on the importance of more localised research regarding the food safety aspects of NSS versus sugar, as well as the provision of correct science-based information to consumers regarding sugar itself.
“For instance, sugar is being attacked blindly regardless of the fact that there has not been any study or research to back up these attacks, no data or scientific research proving that the elimination of sugar automatically means better health,” ISMA Legal and Taxation Director Bharati Balaji told us.
“Anything in excess is going to be bad, including sugar, so we definitely want consumers to take this in moderation but balance this with the right knowledge too.
“India’s sugar consumption is one of the lowest worldwide and 14% of our population is malnourished, so sugar remains important as an affordable source of energy.”
Naturally occurring sugars still the way to go
Moderate sugar consumption still appears to be the way to go in the view of the WHO, especially natural sugars.
“Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term so consumers need to consider other ways to reduce free sugar intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars like fruit or unsweetened foods and beverages,” said the organisation.
“NSS have no nutritional value [and] results also suggest there may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use [although] the certainty of this is still low.”