Indian Beverage Firms Get Bitter Over WHO's Recommendations Against Artificial Sugar

Major beverage and food companies, including the Indian units of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have strongly criticised recent World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on non-sugar sweeteners, citing a lack of scientific rigour.

What Happened? An Indian Beverage Association (IBA) executive told the Economic Times that the industry lobby argues that low or no-calorie sweeteners play a crucial role in reducing sugar intake and calls for a favourable policy regime.

The association includes Dabur India, Red Bull India, Tetra Pak India, Pearl Drinks, and Bengal Beverages. Other industry players, such as Britannia, ITC, Bisleri and Paper Boat are listed as “associate members” on the beverage association’s website. A countrywide soft drink manufacturing association is also a member of the IBA.

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The WHO had said in its conditional guidelines and recommendations last month that artificial sweeteners like aspartame and stevia do not aid in weight loss and may even increase the risk of certain diseases.

Despite industry objections, sales of low-sugar products, including diet colas and breakfast cereals, have experienced significant growth, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, as consumers prioritised seemingly healthier options.

However, the IBA executive emphasised the need for a more comprehensive evidence base to support the WHO’s conclusions, asserting that the UN body’s recommendations lack scientific rigour. The industry body executive said the association would join other stakeholders and government agencies in expressing their concerns during the public consultation on the draft guidelines.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the national foods regulator, is currently evaluating the WHO’s recommended guidelines. The absence of specific detailed guidelines on the use of sweeteners in foods and beverages creates uncertainties within the industry.

The WHO recommends individuals consider alternatives to reduce their intake of free sugars, such as consuming foods with naturally occurring sugars, like fruits, and opting for unsweetened food and beverages.

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