New Study Reveals Artificial Sweeteners Linked to Increased Obesity, Diabetes
Could the non-caloric sweetener you use to replace the sugar in your coffee each morning actually be making you fatter? According to a new study from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, the answer may be yes.
Artificial Sweetener linked to Obesity
The study was published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and compared and compiled the results of 37 previous studies. Seven of these studies were shorter-term randomized trials that included about 1,000 participants, and the remaining 30 were observational studies that tracked the health and lifestyle habits of approximately 406,000 people over time.
Researchers determined that people who regularly consume zero calorie sweeteners--including the most popular, Saccharin, Aspertame, Sucralose—actually had more instance of weight gain, obesity, and diabetes. These results may be surprising to many who assume that the consumption of artificial sweeteners is a healthy alternative to consumption of sugar.
— Meghan Azad (@MeghanAzad) July 17, 2017
“I think there’s an assumption that when there are zero calories, there is zero harm,” says Meghan Azad, PhD, author of the study and research scientist from the University of Manitoba. "We were really interested in the everyday person who is consuming these products not to lose weight, but because they think it's the healthier choice, for many years on end.”
While the study suggests that more research needs to be done to determine the potential long-term effects of artificial sweetener consumption, from what we know now, "there is no clear benefit for weight loss, and there's a potential association with increased weight gain, diabetes and other negative cardiovascular outcomes," says Azad.
According to Azad, over 40% of adult Americans consume zero-calorie artificial sweeteners on a daily basis. They are seemingly Omni-present, and in sources many people would never suspect, from chewing gum to salad dressings and yogurt. Studies that measure the sweeteners in blood and urine have shown that many people who report not using artificial sweeteners are unknowingly consuming them.
The not-so-sweet side of artificial sweeteners
There are just five artificial sweeteners approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States: acesulfame potassium (sold as Sunett and Sweet One), aspartame (sold as Equal, Nutrasweet and Sugar Twin), neotame (sold as Newtame), saccharin (sold as Sweet'N Low, Sweet Twin and Necta Sweet) and sucralose (sold as Splenda). One more, cyclamate, is widely used in more than 100 countries, but banned in the United States.
The FDA says all five approved sweeteners are safe as long as they are used in moderation. That means no more than 23 packets a day of Splenda, Sweet One or Newtame, 45 packets a day of Sweet'N Low, or 75 packets a day of Equal.
Unfortunately, the evidence keeps mounting that even very moderate use of artificial sweeteners can have serious health effects. There are a bunch of hypotheses for why artificial sweeteners may cause weight gain or be in other ways detrimental to our health. They may sharpen a sweet tooth, for example, prompting you to eat more sugary foods, or they may make you feel virtuous but then overcompensate later. Or the sweet taste paired with no calories may confuse the body and change how it handles real sugar, as has been shown in lab animals. Sweeteners may also alter the microbiome in ways that change metabolism for the worse.
"Based on all of the research done so far, there is no clear evidence for a benefit, but there is evidence of potential harm from the long term consumption of artificial sweeteners," said Azad. "This should inspire consumers to think about whether they want to be consuming artificial sweeteners, especially on a regular basis, because we do not know if they are a truly harmless alternative to sugar."
What’s so bad about sugar?
It may be shocking to hear, but sugar in and of itself is not that bad. The most recent USDA dietary guidelines recommend that added sugars account for no more than 10% of our daily calorie intake, or about 12 teaspoons per day. Added sugars include sugars added to manufactured foods like sods, yogurt, candy, cereal, and baked goods, as well as sugar you add yourself, like sugar or honey in your morning cup of coffee or tea. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in milk, fruits, and vegetables do not count as added sugars.
The problem is, we have developed an insatiable appetite for added sugars. Almost half of our added sugars in our diet come from drinks—sodas, fruit juices, and sports drinks, for example. The average American consumes about 17 teaspoons of sugar every day. A single 12-ounce can of regular soda, for example, contains a whopping eight teaspoons of sugar, 130 calories, and zero nutrition.
We must remember, added sugars are calorie-dense, and provide absolutely no nutritional value, so they must be used sparingly.
What can we do?
The healthiest recommendation is to limit our exposure to added sugars whenever possible. Begin to make the move toward eating more whole foods and fewer processed products. A great rule of thumb is, if it comes in a box or package, chances are it has been altered in some way. As much as possible, use fresh, single ingredient foods when preparing meals and snacks for your family. Develop a taste for plain ice water, or water with added fruit infusion for flavor. Opt for fruit instead of baked goods for dessert. Switch out that tub of sugar-sweetened yogurt for plain, unsweetened yogurt and add fresh fruit for flavor.
You don’t have to give up all your favorite foods, but when you begin to pay attention to how much sugar you are consuming, you will be empowered to make healthy choices for yourself and your family. Little changes can add up to make a big difference.