Report and industry clash over artificial sweeteners' role in childhood obesity

By Joyeeta Basu contact

- Last updated on GMT

Current knowledge suggests sweeteners may be better than sugar, but still not necessarily healthy, Swithers said.
Current knowledge suggests sweeteners may be better than sugar, but still not necessarily healthy, Swithers said.

Related tags: Artificial sweeteners, Nutrition, Obesity

A new research report has said that artificial sweeteners may not help reduce obesity in children – a claim that the industry has dismissed.

The report, published in Appetite​, cited studies that have linked artificially sweetened products with a range of diet-related health conditions, including type 2 diabetes​, stroke, hypertension and heart attack​ – the same chronic diseases that have been linked to excessive sugar consumption.

Taken as a whole, current evidence suggests that a focus on reducing sweetener intake, whether the sweeteners are caloric or non-caloric, remains a better strategy for combating overweight and obesity than use of artificial sweeteners​," wrote author Dr Susan Swithers at the department of psychological sciences, Purdue University.

Several biologically plausible mechanisms may explain these counterintuitive negative associations. For example, artificial sweeteners can interfere with basic learning processes that serve to anticipate the normal consequences of consuming sugars, leading to overeating, diminished release of hormones and impaired blood glucose regulation, she added.

“In addition, artificial sweeteners can alter gut microbiota in rodent models and humans, which can also contribute to impaired glucose regulation.”

Therefore, though the promise had been that artificial sweeteners would promote healthy outcomes like reducing obesity, it is a promise that lacks consistent supporting evidence, she argued.

Industry denies claims

The International Sweeteners Association however, strongly disagreed with the report. It said that low calorie sweeteners were not a silver bullet but a tool that could indeed help in the reduction of energy intake and subsequently, weight loss.  

They provide consumers with the choice and the ability to make smart swaps by replacing higher calorie foods and drinks with a lower calorie option and to enjoy sweetness as part of a calorie controlled diet and balanced lifestyle. They are safe for consumption​,” it said.

Other problems with sweeteners

Swithers also claimed that exposing children to high quantities of sweeteners, whether caloric or non-caloric could also predispose children to sweet foods in future.

The claims were despite a study last year that tested the hypothesis​ that sweeteners increased desire for sweet foods and drinks and the results suggested that people who consumed diet soft drinks did not eat more sugary (or fatty) foods. Experts had also been unified​ in a call for more controlled studies in humans before coming to conclusions about zero-calorie sweeteners’ metabolic effects​.

Scientific opinions (including a recent one on aspartame​) from the European Food Safety Authority have also repeatedly found that sweeteners are safe at the current consumption levels.

But Swithers suggested that the high levels of childhood obesity needed to become a high public health priority and referred to an earlier study in her report that showed obesity among adults and children is rising​. 

Childhood obesity has no simple cause, and no single intervention could eliminate childhood obesity...[but] our current scientific knowledge indicates that artificially-sweetened beverages may be better than sugar-sweetened versions, but that does not mean that they are healthy options,​” she said.

Source: Appetite

doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.03.027

“Artificial sweeteners are not the answer to childhood obesity”

Author: S. E. Swithers

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