Artificial sweeteners hit sour note with sketchy science

September 26, 2016
Credit: University of Sydney

University of Sydney researchers have confirmed widespread bias in industry-funded research into artificial sweeteners, which is potentially misleading millions by overstating their health benefits.

n the same week that the sugar industry came under fire for influencing the integrity of scientific research, this new comprehensive review of studies reveals that reviews funded by artificial sweetener companies were nearly 17 times more likely to have favourable results.

The review, published in the latest edition of PLOS ONE journal, analysed 31 studies into artificial sweeteners between 1978 and 2014. The reviews considered both the potentially beneficial effects of artificial sweeteners, such as weight loss, as well as harmful effects like diabetes.

"It's alarming to see how much power the artificial sweetener industry has over the results of its funded research, with not only the data but also the conclusions of these studies emphasising artificial sweeteners' positive effects while neglecting mention of any drawbacks," said co-author Professor Lisa Bero, head of the Charles Perkins Centre's bias node.

"The results of these studies are even more important than the conclusion, as the actual results are used in the development of dietary guidelines."

Study confirms sponsor influence on results

Alarmingly, this analysis of artificial sweetener studies also found financial conflicts of interest created bias at all levels of the research and publication process. Almost half (42 percent) of the reviews of artificial sweetener studies had authors that did not disclose their conflicts of interest, with about one-third of studies failing to reveal their funding sources altogether.

Studies by authors with a conflict of interest were about seven times more likely to have favourable conclusions. None of the nine studies that had authors without a conflict of interest reported positive results.

"Transparency around an author's conflicts of interest and research funding sources for this area of nutrition science is sadly lagging behind other fields," said Professor Bero.

"Our analysis shows that the claims made by artificial sweetener companies should be taken with a degree of skepticism, as many existing studies into artificial sweeteners seem to respond to sponsor demands to exaggerate positive results, even when they are conducted with standard methods.

"Ultimately it is consumers who lose out from this practice because our findings show that the results of reviews on the health benefits of artificial sweeteners cannot always be trusted. Measures to eliminate sponsor influence on nutrition research are desperately needed."

Results raise further questions over funding source

Four of the studies assessed in this latest review were funded by 'competitor companies' that marketed sugary drinks or water, with all four of these reviews reaching conclusions which did not promote the health benefits of artificial sweeteners.

"It's important to be critical of reviews that are funded by any food- or beverage-related companies, not just the ," said Professor Bero, who is also based in the Faculty of Pharmacy.

The PLOS ONE study is the first major review of the effects of funding bias in nutrition research from the Charles Perkins Centre's Bias in Research project node, a unique research collaboration aimed at improving health policy by encouraging unbiased and evidence-based research.

The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Ramazzini Insitute, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of California San Francisco.

Explore further: Sugar substitutes may cut calories, but no health benefits for individuals with obesity

More information: Daniele Mandrioli et al. Relationship between Research Outcomes and Risk of Bias, Study Sponsorship, and Author Financial Conflicts of Interest in Reviews of the Effects of Artificially Sweetened Beverages on Weight Outcomes: A Systematic Review of Reviews, PLOS ONE (2016). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0162198

Related Stories

Sugar substitutes may cut calories, but no health benefits for individuals with obesity

May 24, 2016
Artificial sweeteners help individuals with obesity to cut calories and lose weight but may have negative health effects, according to researchers at York University's Faculty of Health.

Debate continues on impact of artificial sweeteners

December 18, 2013
New research from the University of Adelaide has added to the debate about how our bodies respond to artificial sweeteners and whether they are good, bad or have no effect on us.

Artificial sweeteners may do more than sweeten

May 29, 2013
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that a popular artificial sweetener can modify how the body handles sugar.

Why artificial sweeteners can increase appetite

July 12, 2016
Studies in both animals and humans have suggested that consuming artificial sweeteners can make you feel hungry and actually eat more. A comprehensive new study co-led by the University of Sydney has revealed for the first ...

Sweet news: Review of literature indicates sucralose no-calorie sweetener is not linked to cancer

September 22, 2016
In a society where obesity is increasingly recognized as a risk factor for disease, low- and no-calorie ingredients are logical choices for those wishing to manage their weight. However, some people have concerns that sucralose, ...

Just how much sugar do Americans consume? It's complicated

September 20, 2016
Sugar has become the nutritional villain du jour, but just how bad is our addiction? The answer is tricky.

Recommended for you

Breathing dirty air may harm kidneys, study finds

September 21, 2017
Outdoor air pollution has long been linked to major health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A new study now adds kidney disease to the list, according to ...

Excess dietary manganese promotes staph heart infection

September 21, 2017
Too much dietary manganese—an essential trace mineral found in leafy green vegetables, fruits and nuts—promotes infection of the heart by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus ("staph").

Being active saves lives whether a gym workout, walking to work or washing the floor

September 21, 2017
Physical activity of any kind can prevent heart disease and death, says a large international study involving more than 130,000 people from 17 countries published this week in The Lancet.

Frequent blood donations safe for some, but not all

September 21, 2017
(HealthDay)—Some people may safely donate blood as often as every eight weeks—but that may not be a healthy choice for all, a new study suggests.

Higher manganese levels in children correlate with lower IQ scores, study finds

September 21, 2017
A study led by environmental health researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine finds that children in East Liverpool, Ohio with higher levels of Manganese (Mn) had lower IQ scores. The research appears ...

Higher levels of fluoride in pregnant woman linked to lower intelligence in their children

September 20, 2017
Fluoride in the urine of pregnant women shows a correlation with lower measures of intelligence in their children, according to University of Toronto researchers who conducted the first study of its kind and size to examine ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

24volts
5 / 5 (2) Sep 26, 2016
I'll stick with real sugar thank you. I haven't found one of those artificial sweeteners yet that don't taste bitter to me.
dshinozuka
not rated yet Sep 27, 2016
Try stevia. 50 times sweeter than sugar. I love it.

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.