Are artificial sweeteners faking their health benefits?

Sugar and sweeteners
The data indicate that people who consume artificially sweetened beverages over the long term are more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and metabolic syndrome.
Professor Susan Swithers
Although artificial sweeteners – and artificially sweetened beverages in particular – are often portrayed as a healthy alternative to sugar, Professor Susan Swithers believes they could pose just as significant a risk to our health…

Many people have turned to artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages as a way of avoiding the calorific natural sugars that we are warned could contribute to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. In an opinion piece in the Cell Press journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, however, a review of the evidence suggests that high-intensity sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin also pose a risk to our health.

The paper’s author, Susan Swithers, is Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University. In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Professor Swithers explained why she thinks more and more of us are turning to artificial sweeteners.

"I think they are popular because they seem like they should be helpful; after all, they provide a sweet taste but without the extra calories," she said. "The most logical thing to think is that they are healthy alternatives."

Health at risk
 

Although it may seem like common sense to assume that these calorie-free sweeteners and the products which contain them are healthier than their sugar-sweetened counterparts, the data to support this assumption is quite weak.

"The data indicate that people who consume artificially sweetened beverages over the long term are more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and metabolic syndrome," Professor Swithers related. "That is on top of being more likely to end up overweight or obese."

Just one drink per day containing these low-calorie sweeteners is enough to increase the risk of such health problems, according to Professor Swithers’ review of the research. It is not yet clear exactly why this is the case, but the literature seems to point towards the neurophysiological effects of artificial sweeteners, which are hundreds of times sweeter than natural sugars.

"A few studies have shown using neuroimaging that brain activity is normally different when we consume artificial sweeteners as compared to sugar," Professor Swithers pointed out. "But the brain activity of people who regularly consume diet soft drinks is not the same as the brain activity of people who don't.

"Additionally, artificial sweeteners don't seem to lead to the release of some hormones that are important for the metabolism and regulation of blood sugar. This could be problematic if the body learns not to release these hormones when regular sugars are eaten."

Sweet enough
 

By dampening physiological responses to the taste of sweet foods and drinks, non-caloric sweeteners may cause individuals to overindulge in calorie-rich, sugary products; this has been shown to be the case in studies on rats.

In the paper’s concluding remarks, it is suggested that those who regularly consume artificially sweetened beverages have a greater risk of health problems than those who do not. The risk is of a similar magnitude to that associated with sugar-sweetened beverages, but what should the public health message be if artificial sweeteners are just as bad for our health as natural sugars?

"In general, we probably consume too many sweeteners – both artificial and natural – and a lot of those sweeteners come from beverages," Professor Swithers remarked. "Reducing the amount of sweetened foods and drinks we consume could be useful in decreasing the prevalence of diseases like diabetes.

"We are very interested in continuing to try to understand the mechanisms that might link consumption of artificial sweeteners to negative health outcomes, and our future research will be focused on looking at how learning and experience can affect physiological responses related to sweeteners."


Read the full text of the paper, Artificial sweeteners produce the
counterintuitive effect of inducing
metabolic derangements
...


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