Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Helping or Hurting Your Diet? 23 July 2013

What could be wrong with artificial sweeteners? They make foods taste sweet without the calories you’d get from sugar. And, according to the standards for food additive safety, they don’t appear to increase risk for cancer.

Artificial sweeteners have been around for awhile. Saccharin, one of the first artificial sweeteners to be used in food, was discovered in 1879. There was no obesity epidemic, so initially saccharin was used mostly for diabetic foods, to help people with Type 1 diabetes control carbohydrate intake. Cyclamates were identified in the 1930’s, and used in some of the first diet soft drinks, like Fresca. Due to safety concerns, food companies switched to other sweeteners like aspartame, which was discovered by accident in a chemical lab in the 1960’s. Aspartame is still widely used in soft drinks and foods, along with a collection of new “natural” low calorie sweeteners like sucralose and stevia.

These chemicals don’t have much in common other than the sweet taste. Chemically they are very different from each other. These chemical differences make them work better or worse in certain types of foods. Some have unusual or unpleasant after-tastes.

Artificial sweeteners are all tested for safety for use as food additives. Unfortunately, the definition of “safety” is limited to cancer risk, although clearly there are other side effects that could be objectionable or unhealthy. Another test that’s not done: efficacy. The reason people use artificial sweeteners is to reduce calories in food, to fight obesity and promote weight loss. Ironically, in the decades since artificial sweeteners made their first big splash in our food supply, the obesity epidemic has only gotten worse.

Coincidence? Some researchers think not, and in a new report, Dr. Susan Swithers of Purdue University concludes that artificial sweeteners actually make weight gain and obesity worse. How could this be?

According to the report, animal research suggests that sweet tastes, whether from sugar or artificial sweeteners, tell your metabolism to get ready to absorb carbohydrate calories. Digestive hormones are secreted, but if real calories never show up, there’s nothing for the hormones to work on. When this effect happens over and over, day after day, metabolism is disrupted.

Hunger/satiety signals aren’t fooled by artificial sweeteners. Fake sweeteners do not trigger satiety or brain reward signals. If you were hungry before drinking that diet soft drink, you’re still hungry. Dr. Swithers speculates that these effects could actually drive people to eat more, to make up for the lack of real calories, disrupted hormones and lack of satiety. Result: despite using artificial sweeteners, people end up eating more calories from other foods.

Predictably, companies that manufacture artificial sweeteners object to these ideas. The Calorie Control Council, which represents the low cal industry, claims Dr. Swithers is biased. No word on their biases. But they do have a point. Dr. Swithers work is primarily with animals. There are no similar studies in humans, because those studies would be very hard to do and very expensive.

There are other possible explanations for why artificial sweeteners don’t seem to be contributing to a reduction in the obesity epidemic. Rather than metabolic effects, it’s about behavioral effects:

  • People who choose artificially sweetened foods are already obese, and are trying to lose weight. However, they think artificially sweetened foods give them an excuse to eat high calorie treats, because they’ve “saved” calories. Unfortunately, rewarding yourself with a 600 calorie ice cream sundae after saving 150 calories by drinking an artificially sweetened soft drink doesn’t result in calorie reduction.
  • When someone is told by their medical provider that they are at risk for Type 2 diabetes or heart disease or hypertension because of their weight, they switch to artificially sweetened foods and beverages. So the link between artificial sweeteners and obesity is not a cause, it’s an effect of their obesity.
  • Artificially sweetened foods make people accustomed to very sweet flavors, and they end up craving and eating lots of other sugary foods, which may not be so low in calories. Or eating larger portions of foods that have some artificial sweetener, but also have calories from fat or complex carbs. Example: a pastry with artificially sweetened frosting.

Only two things are certain:

  1. The controversy isn’t going away anytime soon.
  2. Artificial sweeteners aren’t going away anytime soon.

Meanwhile what should you do? The occasional diet soft drink or low calorie treat aren’t likely to cause the problems described by Dr. Swithers, assuming the rest of your diet is whole foods, with plenty of high fiber plant foods.

  • If you’re struggling with weight, while downing countless artificially sweetened beverages and foods everyday, you may want to rethink that strategy. There’s absolutely no need to drink syrupy-sweet beverages, regardless of the sweetener. If you’re thirsty, drink water.
  • If you know you’re one of those people who think the health halo of a low calorie food gives you permission to indulge in high calorie treats, you need to re-think that strategy.
  • If your sweet tooth has taken over your food choices, and one way you indulge that is constantly consuming artificially sweetened drinks, you need to re-think that strategy. How to tell? If you think a banana or fresh blueberries or peaches are bland, your taste buds have been hijacked by sweeteners.

Donna P. Feldman MS RDN, is a registered dietitian and nutrition journalist. She writes about food, diet and nutrition issues for her own blog RadioNutrition.com.

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