Study Suggests Artificial Sweeteners are no More Healthy than Sugar

Several media outlets have reported on research which suggests that artificial sweeteners do not help people lose weight, and may in fact contribute to the obesity problems as much as reviled full-sugar versions.

The evidence, though, is not based on new studies, but instead a review of existing evidence.

This review argues that artificially sweetened drinks are just as unhealthy as sugar sweetened drinks and says that the national dietary guidance shouldn’t recommend consumption of artificially sweetened drinks as an alternative.

There is an “absence of consistent evidence” that artificially sweetened drinks can improve health outcomes such as helping people achieve a healthy body weight, according to the researchers involved in the work.

The review was carried out by researchers from various institutions in the UK, US and Brazil, such as Imperial College London, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of São Paulo.

Individual researchers reported various sources of funding, including the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) and an NIHR Research Professorship award.

The review was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal PLOS Medicine, an open-access journal, so the study is free to read online.

Researchers assessed evidence from various types of study such as randomised-controlled trials (RCTs) and observational studies.

The review outlined evidence that several systematic reviews of observational cohort studies and randomised controlled trials have found an association between artificially sweetened drinks and weight loss.

It also raises the point that there are long-standing concerns that replacing sugar sweetened drinks with artificially sweetened drinks may trigger various mechanisms in the body.

These may include increased appetite, increased preference for sweet taste, or simply overconsumption of solid foods due to awareness of the low calorie content from artificially sweetened drinks.

Researchers involved state that although national dietary guidelines generally recommend avoiding or reducing our intake of sugar sweetened drinks, the guidance surrounding consumption of artificially sweetened drinks is mixed.

The researchers conclude that in “the absence of evidence to support the role of ASBs [artificially sweetened beverages] in preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on other long-term effects on health strengthen the position that ASBs should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet. In practice, this means that ASBs should not be recommended in dietary guidance and be subject to the same restrictions on advertising and promotion as those imposed on SSBs. New taxes implemented on SSBs should be applied at the same level to ASBs.”

But some academics have been critical of the conclusions.

Professor Naveed Sattar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Glasgow commented thus:
“I do not agree with the suggestion that diet drinks are no better than sugary drinks in terms of body weight. Whilst I agree the evidence base in terms of proper trials comparing sugary drinks with diet drinks are lacking for real end-points like weight or heart disease, intuitively a drink which contains lots of calories (i.e. sugary drinks) versus one that contains few or no calories (i.e. diet drinks) must be worse for health given clear adverse effects on dental health and clear gain of calories and so weight gain potential. To suggest otherwise would be irresponsible.”


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