Demand for sugar in the UAE grew by 5 per cent last year on the back of growth in population, and as some of the consumers are shifting back from artificial sweeteners to sugar after a World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory.

“Demand for sugar was around 200,000 tonnes last year in the UAE, growing by 5 per cent last year due to population growth,” said Jamal Al Ghurair, managing director, Al Khaleej Sugar.

“Sugar is a commodity that human beings need to eat. Without sugar, as a human being, you’ll have zero power. It also depends on how you take it from each product."

"Recently, WHO has realised that these artificial sweeteners are negative and not good for human consumption. So people are going back to raw and white sugar,” he told Khaleej Times during an interview on the sidelines of The Dubai Sugar Conference on Tuesday.

On May 15, 2023, the WHO released a new guideline on non-sugar sweeteners (NSS), recommending against the use of them to control body weight or reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The recommendation was based on the findings of a systematic review of the available evidence which suggested that the use of NSS does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children. Results of the review also suggested that there may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.

Dr Claudiu Covrig, founder and leader agriculture analyst at CovrigAnalytics, said Asia and the Middle East are the two regions where demand for sugar is seeing the highest increases due to population growth.

"Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term. People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugar intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages,” said Francesco Branca, director for nutrition and food safety at WHO.

Dr Kingini Bhadran, a specialist endocrinologist at Aster Clinic in Al Qusais, said NSS is used by 25 per cent of adults regularly in UAE.

“Regarding the known side effects, it can cause abdominal pain and bloating by disrupting gut bacteria. It can interfere with blood glucose regulation and cause insulin resistance. It can make changes in weight by disrupting satiety and appetite control and also mood changes. It is still not proven whether it increases the risk of cancer,” she said.

Bhadran added that the guideline released by WHO was based on a systematic review and meta-analysis on the use of non-sugar sweeteners.

“As per this, though randomised controlled trials (RCT) show a reduction in adiposity with NSS, the prospective cohort studies were associated with increased adiposity and chronic disease risk. However, there are some methodological limitations to these cohort studies as well. Moreover, there should be a strong and consistent signal of harm across all the study types to recommend against the use of NSS. However here, RCT showed benefits in weight reduction, adiposity and calorie reduction and prospective cohort studies showed harm to cardiometabolic outcomes. There should be a more detailed analysis of these aspects to prove these recommendations right,” she said.

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