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October 2017

Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Good for You and Your Waistline? 

Sweet’N Low. Equal. Splenda. More people in the U.S. and worldwide are choosing these and other artificial sweeteners over sugar. Such sweeteners—whether poured from a packet or already added in a food or drink—aim to tame your sweet tooth while helping you consume fewer calories. Yet recent research suggests these sugar substitutes may not be that good at helping you manage your weight. 

Packets of artificial sweetener

An artificial advantage?

In a recent review, researchers looked at 37 past studies on artificial sweeteners. They focused on their effect on heart health and body weight. Seven of the studies in the review were randomized, controlled trials (RCTs). Such trials are considered the gold standard in scientific study design. The 30 others were observational group studies. 

From their review, the researchers found that artificial sweeteners don’t seem to help people lose weight or stay at a healthy weight. In fact, using them for a long period of time may raise your risk of being overweight or obese. Why? People may not be using them in the right way. They may not be cutting out other sugar-filled or high-calorie fare from their diet. 

What’s more, the researchers found that artificial sweeteners may be linked to heart problems. Namely, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. That may be because extra weight puts you at risk for these other health ills. Despite this finding, the researchers don’t say you should shun sugar substitutes. They caution that more research is needed. Longer-term RCTs could better explain these possible health effects.

The safety of artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners have been around for quite some time. Saccharin—better known as Sweet’N Low—has been used to sweeten foods since the late 1800s. In the 1970s, studies in mice suggested saccharin may lead to bladder cancer. But later research in humans found no such link. In fact, research continues to show that sugar substitutes are safe. 

The FDA has approved saccharin and 5 other artificial sweeteners. That means the agency has reviewed the scientific research and found them safe to use as intended. These other sugar substitutes are:

  • Aspartame (Equal)

  • Acesulfame potassium (Sweet One)

  • Sucralose (Splenda)

  • Neotame (Newtame)

  • Advantame 

You may have also heard of stevia. It comes from the leaves of the stevia plant. The FDA considers this food additive as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe. That means experts already deem it safe so no review is needed. 

Many people use artificial sweeteners without any problems. But some people may be very sensitive to them. Those who have a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) should stay away from aspartame and advantame. Their bodies can’t break down these food additives. Aspartame may also cause headaches in some people.

 

Visit the FDA webite for more about artificial sweeteners.

 

Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2017
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