17th July 2017 – Artificial sweeteners are frequently found in a wide range of products from soft drinks to yoghurts and even children's pain-relieving medication.
Now, a review of some of the evidence suggests they could be linked to weight gain, contrary to one of the main reasons behind their introduction.
Non-nutritive sweeteners - meaning they have no nutritional value - are compounds that offer the sweetness of sugar without the same calories. They can be anywhere between 30 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar.
Because they pack a huge punch in the sweetness department, they are often chosen as an alternative to sugar because they are believed to be less fattening.
Little wonder then that consumption of aspartame, saccharin, stevia and similar ingredients is increasing.
However, some previous studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners may interfere with the body's ability to metabolise sugar, and with gut microbes and appetite control. Some animal studies have reported that long-term exposure can increase food consumption, weight gain and body fat.
To try to explain the paradox, a team from the University of Manitoba in Canada analysed results from 7 high quality trials involving 1,003 people who were followed up for an average of 6 months.
They found that evidence from these randomised control trials does not demonstrate clear evidence that non-nutritive artificial sweeteners are beneficial for weight management.
However, the study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal says that "these associations have not been confirmed in experimental studies and may be influenced by publication bias".
The authors call for further studies to examine the composition of different types of artificial sweeteners and to compare their effect with sugar.
Commenting on the findings in an emailed statement, Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, says: "Low and no-calorie sweeteners have been deemed safe by all leading health authorities in the world, including the European Food Safety Authority.
He says this latest research contradicts most other evidence on alternative sweeteners.
Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis
of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies, Azad M et al, Canadian Medical Association Journal
Press release, Canadian Medical Association Journal
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