Not All Sweeteners Are Equal

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Amid the recent barrage of media reports striking fear in the hearts of dieters around the country, there is good news. The low calorie sweetener aspartame is vindicated in the rodent obesity hypothesis.

This fact, confirmed by a team led by Mt. Sinai neuroscience researchers (Margolskee et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(38):15075), is significant given the enthusiastic media coverage of a rat study earlier this year suggesting that rats fed diets with added saccharine gained more weight than those that did not. This coverage was quickly and almost gleefully extrapolated for its "implications" to virtually any human who may enjoy the taste of a diet soda.

Unlike people, mice are not particularly impressed with the taste of the low calorie sweetener aspartame. Aspartame does not trigger the same chemical sensory cascade as sugar, sucralose, saccharine or other low calorie sweeteners in rats. As a result, there is no way it will be creating an obesity epidemic among rodents in the near future.

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"Given that we have so many common sense human studies that point to a benefit of including good tasting foods sweetened with aspartame as part of weight management plans, we never put much stock in the animal study to begin with," said Robert Bursey, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs at Ajinomoto USA. "But if you are inclined to apply rodent studies to people, no worries. Aspartame is different."

Aspartame is a simple sweetener that is broken down into compounds found in common foods like milk, chicken and fruit juices. It is the only low calorie sweetener that is naturally digested by the body.

"It may be time to interject a little common sense into our discussion of low calorie sweeteners," said Bursey. "Aspartame adds a sweet good taste to food without the calories. It's not terribly complicated."

This year marks the 25th anniversary of aspartame's approval for use in beverages. It is by far the most widely used low calorie sweetener in the United States, based on information collected by SRI Consulting.

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