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Artificial sweeteners could cause weight gain over time, review of studies says

18 July 2017

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, artificial sweeteners can be used as a strategy to manage weight or blood sugar by helping to limit energy intake.

The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that artificial sweeteners are safe, and sucralose, which was accidentally discovered by United Kingdom scientists while they were developing new insecticides, remains the biggest sugar substitute on the market, according to retail tracking service Infoscan Reviews and Information Resources, Inc.

The 30 studies that they reviewed followed groups of people using artificial sweeteners - which included aspartame (brand name Equal), sucralose (brand name Splenda) and steviocide (brand name Stevia) - reviewed in this analysis included longer, larger studies with follow ups every four to nine years and found that those who routinely used artificial sweeteners gained weight and had higher risks of obesity, high blood pressure and stroke.

To determine whether regular consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners is associated with long-term adverse cardiometabolic effects, Azad and colleagues searched several databases for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that assessed interventions for nonnutritive sweeteners and cohort studies that evaluated the consumption of such sweeteners among adults and adolescents.

In the most recent study, researchers analyzed 37 randomized controlled trials comprising 400,000 subjects and conducted by researchers associated with the University of Manitoba.

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There's no evidence that artificial sweeteners alter the way the body processes sugar, she noted, and some research has shown that sugar substitutes do not make a person crave candies more.

Rather than aiming to cut out artificial sweetners unnecessarily from our diets (a hard task, based on the prevalence of their use, ) let's consider the research. Furthermore, in most observational studies, adjustment for variables related to adiposity attenuates or diminishes the observed relations, leading to no significant associations anymore. Further research is needed to fully characterize the long-term risks and benefits of artificial sweeteners.

Admittedly, both reviewed studies do have their strengths and weaknesses.

NPR reports: "There are a bunch of hypotheses for why artificial sweeteners may not promote weight loss or health".

The psychological factor from consuming artificial sweeteners could be worse for us than the packet of sugar we were trying to initially avoid.

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The findings can be found published online in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Health sciences Prof. Meghan Azad was one of them, reaching for the low-calorie choices until she started researching them in detail. "We know a lot of people are consuming them in foods and not realizing it".

It could be that those who regularly use artificial sweeteners over-compensate for the missed calories from sugar, or they could have otherwise unhealthy diets in conjunction with sweetener use.

Last year, a University of Texas study suggested that diet soda, for example, added 0.8 inches to occasional diet soda drinkers, and 3.16 inches to daily drinkers. 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.

"Portion control works, diets in general - lean protein, high fruits, vegetables, watching the sugar - those work", Ashton said.

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Artificial sweeteners could cause weight gain over time, review of studies says