When people hear that sugar-sweetened beverages pose health hazards, some respond by switching to diet soft drinks. A new analysis in The BMJ suggests that might not be the best strategy. Non-sugar sweeteners may not offer the expected advantages (The BMJ, Jan. 3, 2019).
What Are the Effects of Non-Sugar Sweeteners?
The researchers reviewed 56 studies of non-sugar sweeteners and found “no compelling evidence to indicate important health benefits.” In most of these studies comparing outcomes for people consuming artificial sweeteners to those for people consuming none, there were no significant differences. In a few small studies, people using sugar substitutes had lower fasting blood sugar and slightly better body mass index. However, these findings were statistically uncertain. Previous research has not shown strong evidence that such sweeteners help people lose weight.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
The researchers point out that these studies did not adequately address questions of safety. They call for longer-term, better-designed trials to establish clearer conclusions on safety and effectiveness of sugar substitutes.
An earlier study found some unexpected effects of such sweeteners that may have a bearing on safety.
Non-Sugar Sweeteners May Change Metabolism:
Test tube research suggests that the artificial sweetener sucralose can alter the metabolism of stem cells from fat tissue. (Stem cells are capable of becoming many different types of tissue cells, for example, muscle or bone as well as fat.)
These human cells churned out more compounds associated with inflammation and fat storage when they were exposed to sucralose. The dose was equivalent to someone drinking four cans of diet soda a day. The stem cells also showed changes in their genes that indicate fat production.
Could Sugar-Free Drinks Be Counterproductive?
If these “in vitro” laboratory results hold up in animals and humans, heavy consumption of non-sugar sweeteners could lead to fat accumulation rather than fat and weight loss. The scientists also discovered other signs of metabolic disruption due to non-sugar sweeteners. They are concerned that these changes were most noticeable in people who are already overweight or obese.
The researchers note:
“we believe that low-calorie sweeteners promote additional fat formation by allowing more glucose to enter the cells, and promotes inflammation, which may be more detrimental in obese individuals.”
Sen et al, Endocrine Society annual meeting, Orlando, FL, April 3, 2017