Artificial sweeteners have been controversial for decades. In the 1960s, when the idea of low-calorie substitutes for sugar was still fairly new, animal studies suggested that saccharine and cyclamate could be dangerous. While saccharine is still available in the US, cyclamate is not. As each new sugar substitute was introduced, the food industry assured the public that it was safe. Doubts have remained for many artificial sweeteners, so some people are hopeful that a naturally-derived sweetener such as stevia will be better.
How Safe Is Stevia?
Q. Is there any research regarding the safety of stevia? I am concerned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners but don’t want to consume regular sugar.
A. Artificial sweeteners have come under scrutiny because they may not help people lose weight. In addition, sucralose might make inflammatory bowel disease worse (Rodriguez-Palacios et al, Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, April 23, 2018).
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a plant native to South America. The compounds in its leaves (including rebaudioside A) are 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar. A recent review found no toxicity and some potential therapeutic effects (Current Pharmaceutical Design, vol. 23, no. 11, 2017).
How Well Do Artificial Sweeteners Work?
The appeal of sugar substitutes is that they would allow us to have our cake–or our soft drinks!–and still stay slim. Diet soda is supposed to help people lose weight, but recent research suggests that replacing diet drinks with water helps women with type 2 diabetes lose more weight (Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, October 11, 2016).
Does Diet Soda Really Help People Lose Weight?
The study included 81 Iranian women who were trying to lose weight and accustomed to consuming diet drinks. The volunteers were randomly divided into two groups. One group was allowed to drink diet soda after lunch five times a week while the other was asked to switch to water.
They were not allowed diet beverages at any other time of day, and they were asked not to use artificial sweeteners in their tea or coffee. The six-month program gradually increased the exercise of all the participants and held all of them to a reduced calorie diet.
The Results of the Trial:
Both groups lost weight, but at the end of the study, those drinking water instead of diet soda had lost about 2.5 pounds more.
Did Diet Soda Help Diabetes?
Women drinking water also had more improvement in their insulin sensitivity. One researcher noted that these results raise the question of whether diet beverages are truly beneficial for people with diabetes. Until we have a similar study using stevia instead of sugar, we won’t know if this sweetener is truly healthful.
A Response from the Industry:
We received this comment from AmeriBev. We assume that is a representative of the soft drink industry:
“A substantial body of research, including human clinical trials, supports that beverages that contain low- and no-calorie sweeteners are an effective tool as part of an overall weight loss or weight management plan. In fact, the CHOICE study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in January of 2013 confirms that these beverages can be an important tool in helping reduce calories.”