The dark side of artificial sweeteners

July 10, 2013

More and more Americans are consuming artificial sweeteners as an alternative to sugar, but whether this translates into better health has been heavily debated. An opinion article published by Cell Press on July 10th in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism reviews surprising evidence on the negative impact of artificial sweeteners on health, raising red flags about all sweeteners—even those that don't have any calories.

"It is not uncommon for people to be given messages that artificially-sweetened products are healthy, will help them lose weight or will help prevent weight gain," says author Susan E. Swithers of Purdue University. "The data to support those claims are not very strong, and although it seems like common sense that diet sodas would not be as problematic as regular sodas, common sense is not always right."

Consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks has been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome—a group of risk factors that raises the risk for heart disease and stroke. As a result, many Americans have turned to , which are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar but contain few, if any, calories. However, studies in humans have shown that consumption of artificially sweetened beverages is also associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome as well as cardiovascular disease. As few as one of these drinks per day is enough to significantly increase the risk for health problems.

Moreover, people who regularly consume artificial sweeteners show altered activation patterns in the brain's pleasure centers in response to sweet taste, suggesting that these products may not satisfy the desire for sweets. Similarly, studies in mice and rats have shown that consumption of noncaloric sweeteners dampens physiological responses to sweet taste, causing the animals to overindulge in calorie-rich, sweet-tasting food and pack on extra pounds.

Taken together, the findings suggest that artificial sweeteners increase the risk for health problems to an extent similar to that of sugar and may also exacerbate the negative effects of sugar. "These studies suggest that telling people to drink diet sodas could backfire as a public health message," Swithers says. "So the current public health message to limit the intake of sugars needs to be expanded to limit intake of all sweeteners, not just sugars."

More information: Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, Swithers et al.: "Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements."

Related Stories

Fat substitutes linked to weight gain

June 20, 2011

Synthetic fat substitutes used in low-calorie potato chips and other foods could backfire and contribute to weight gain and obesity, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.

Major medical groups back sweeteners as diet aid

July 9, 2012

(HealthDay) -- Non-nutritive sweeteners like Splenda, Equal and Sweet'N Low may have a role to play in maintaining or even losing weight, as long as people don't use them as an excuse to treat themselves later with high-calorie ...

Christopher Gardner on non-nutritive sweeteners

July 10, 2012

It sounds like a no-brainer: To cut your sugar intake, just switch to foods and drinks with no-calorie, artificial sweeteners. That way, you’ll still satisfy your sweet tooth without packing on the extra pounds, right? ...

Recommended for you

Can four fish oil pills a day keep the doctor away?

July 7, 2015

Fish oil is one of the most popular dietary supplements in the U.S. because of the perceived cardiovascular benefits of the omega-3 it contains. However, scientific findings on its effectiveness have been conflicting. New ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.