The food industry has produced a number of substances to give you the flavor without the calories. Consumption of sugar-like natural and artificial sweeteners has risen dramatically over past years. There is a lot of research on their potential effects on the human body. Let’s look into it!
Fear of Artificial Sweeteners
Over past decades, media has spread fear behind artificial sweeteners, claiming that they cause damage by increasing body weight, food cravings, and causing addictions, sometimes comparing sweeteners with cocaine addiction. (4) These analyses are, however, based on charry picked studies looking at rats receiving HUGE doses of artificial sweeteners (1000 times higher than human consumption) from birth, protein in cells, MRI scans looking at the reward systems, and observational studies (which only show associations, and not cause). Just because an effect seen in a rat or in a test tube or flashes on an MRI are NOT the same as effects on weight.
Don’t Cherry Pick Studies: Read Systematic Reviews
To know what is ACTUALLY true, we need to look at experimental studies on humans actually measuring weight. (3) We also need to look at ALL available studies, using so-called systematic reviews, where scientists go through all studies they can find on a topic to draw conclusions (they also actually explain how the authors searched for the studies, allowing anyone to reproduce the search to know studies weren’t cherry picked).
What the Research Says
In his systemic review, P.J. Rogers et al concluded that, when looking at ALL the evidence, there is no reason to doubt that artificial sweeteners could have help people restrict how many calories they consume and thus lose weight. Replacing caloric sweeteners (i.e. sugar, honey, syrup etc.) with artificial sweeteners could be one method to help the growing prevalence of obesity and diabetes worldwide. Still, science is never 100%, and there is still the need for long term experimental studies to confirm results from short-studies and term or observational studies.
This will always be demanded when it comes to ANY scientific question, but at one point we have to say that the evidence seems certain enough to give a recommendation, and in this case it is: artificial sweeteners are a better alternative than sugar for preventing weight gain for metabolically healthy individuals.
Results from a Randomized Control Trial
Piernas et al. conducted an experimental study where participants were asked to replace sugary drinks with diet drinks (the artificial sweetener group) or water (the control group). The artificial sweetener group developed better habits, consumed less alcohol, desserts and caloric sweeteners compared to the water group. Looking at calories consumed, both groups ended up eating less calories, and this finding was statistically significant, but there were too few participants in the study to say that one group was better than the other. After 6 months, The artificial sweetener group reduced caloric intake by 30% (from 2283 kcal to 1601 kcal). while the water group reduced intake by 26% (from 2056 kcal to 1517 kcal). It is important to keep in mind that participants were part of a weight loss study, meaning that other influences might have contributed to their reduction in caloric intake.
Apart from the above, another study looking at caloric sugar alcohols (sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, erythritol etc.) found that they MIGHT reduce the risk of cancer, have prebiotic functions, favor absorption of B vitamins, reduce the rise of blood glucose and insulin levels and increase mineral bioavailability.
Overall artificial sweeteners are beneficial for promoting health when used in moderation. Newer sweeteners aren’t as well studied as for example aspartame which is most proven to be safe. We recommend consuming regular sugar in moderation, and choosing aspartame whenever the alternative is sugar. Every person’s body is different, and metabolic responses could differ between people (for example: people born with metabolic disease PKU should avoid aspartame). There is and will always be an “unknown” factor to everything, which is why constant research is needed to prevent negative consequences.
4. PMCID: PMC2892765