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Sweeteners not so sweet for you?

Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame have for many years been the panacea for weight control because, although sweet, they contain virtually no calories. It’s a good theory; though in reality there are no studies in the scientific literature to support this. 

Back in 2010, The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that two publications on the safety of artificial sweeteners, namely a carcinogenicity study in mice (Soffritti et al., 2010) and an epidemiological study on the association between intakes of artificially sweetened soft drinks and increased incidence of preterm delivery (Halldorsson et al., 2010) do not give reason to reconsider previous safety assessments of aspartame or of other sweeteners currently authorised in the European Union.

There has been previous research in animals, which suggests that artificial sweeteners are not quite as safe as the EU thinks. In one study, (Swithers SE, et al 2008) rats were fed either saccharin or sugar-sweetened yoghurt in conjunction with their normal diet. Compared to those eating sugar-sweetened yoghurt, the rats eating saccharin-laced yoghurt consumed more calories and got fatter as well. The authors of this study concluded that “…using artificial sweeteners in rats resulted in increased caloric intake, increased body weight, and increased adiposity (fatness)”, saying that “These results suggest that consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners may lead to increased body weight and obesity by interfering with fundamental homeostatic, physiological processes”.

Recently, another animal study, (De Mats Feijo F, et al 2013) which is worrying. Here, rats were split into three groups, each of which was given unlimited amounts of standard rat food (chow) and water . The groups were also given access to yoghurt sweetened with either saccharin, aspartame of sugar (sucrose).

Rats eating the artificially sweetened yoghurt ate more chow than those eating the sugar-sweetened yoghurt. The overall calorie intakes were the same. This suggests that when reduced-calorie foodstuffs are consumed, there can be a natural drive to seek those ‘missing’ calories elsewhere.

What was really interesting about this study, was that the rats consuming artificial sweetener gained weight at a rate faster than those eating the sugar. But the calorie intakes were essentially the same, meaning that change in weight could not be explained by differences in food intake. The authors mention another study from 2010, Polyák E, et al, which essentially found the same thing

It’s not clear what mechanisms are at work here. However, it was noted in a previous study that rats experienced a boost in their temperature after eating sugar-sweetened food, which was not present after eating saccharin-sweetened food. Could this mean that consuming calories from sugar boosts the metabolism in a way that artificial sweeteners may not?

Although we do not know if these results apply to humans, animals do give researchers the ability to strictly control and measure what they eat and the impact on weight, which is difficult to do with humans. Once again there’s evidence, which shows that artificial sweeteners can stimulate weight gain. I’d say the evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners are unlikely to deliver on their weight loss promise.


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