Science and Superstition of Sweeteners

Superstition about no-calorie sweeteners routinely flows from some otherwise credible sources of health information. A new study just published in Obesity provides some good science to dispel those superstitions.

John Peters and a host of well-respected obesity scientists studied the effects of water versus beverages with no-calorie sweeteners (e.g. diet soda) in a randomized, controlled 12-week weight loss study. They found that people randomized to drink at least 24 ounces daily of drinks with no-calorie sweeteners lost significantly more weight (about 4 pounds, p < 0.001) than people told to drink at least 24 ounces of water daily and drink nothing with no-calorie sweeteners. All participants in the study were already drinkers of beverages with no-calorie sweeteners before the study began.

People randomized to the water-drinking group not only lost less weight, but they also reported more hunger.

This study will not be the final word. A longer study is already underway to answer obvious questions about the role of diet drinks in maintaining a lower weight.

But we can hope that folks who ought to know better will stop dispensing advice to avoid no-calorie sweeteners. An example of this sort of advice comes from David Katz in U.S. News & World Report. While saying that no-calorie sweeteners are not deadly, he lists fear of unknown effects, inadequate evidence, and potential to promote sugar cravings as reasons to avoid them. These concerns are simply not supported by facts. Evidence analyses by the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics all conclude that no-calorie sweeteners can be safely used to reduce consumption of added sugars.

For products studied and consumed as widely as no-calorie sweeteners, fear of unknown effects is more superstition than sound advice. The assertion that no evidence supports their use in weight loss is refuted by this study. And the theory of promoting sugar cravings, though it’s been studied, has not been shown to be a real phenomenon.

This is, of course, only one study. It’s not a basis for recommending diet drinks for all. But it sure knocks out flimsy advice to stop drinking them.

“Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.” — Edmund Burke

Click here to read the study, here for a companion commentary, and  here for more from Katz on artificial sweeteners.

No Sugar! Photograph © SimonQ / flickr

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One Response to “Science and Superstition of Sweeteners”

  1. June 05, 2014 at 3:10 pm, Mark said:

    Hi Katz this is an interesting piece of writing i also did a seminar paper on the same it has always been a question of concern. thanks a lot for this piece of information!