Low Fact Reporting on Sweeteners

Is factual reporting on sweeteners no longer a possibility? A sampling of recent headlines raises that question. Here are a few:

How Sugar Substitutes Prevent Weight Loss

Which Is Worse: Artificial Sweeteners or Sugar?

Why Researchers Think Aspartame Is Making You Fat

Low Calorie Drinks Actually Boost Weight

The cause for these headlines was a paper published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. The paper included test tube data (n=3), live mouse GI tissue data (n=5), and data from live, whole mice (n=4). The study’s authors concluded that a metabolite of the sweetener aspartame might inhibit an enzyme in mice that reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome in mice.

No humans consumed any aspartame or gained any weight or had anything to do with this paper, except for writing it. So no, there’s no evidence that “low calorie drinks actually boost weight.”

The flip side of that question is a bit more controversial. Do low calorie drinks help people lose weight? Studies intended to address this question have yielded mixed results. A recent study of replacing diet beverages with water garnered a lot of press when the results showed more weight loss for women who switched to water than for women who kept drinking diet beverages. Alan Barclay, author of The Ultimate Guide to Sugar and Sweeteners, recommends putting this study into perspective:

This is one study of only 65 women in which a behavioral weight loss program was a significant factor. Its findings are not consistent with a systematic review of the evidence on low energy sweeteners, such as was recently published by Peter Rogers and colleagues.

Rogers et al concluded:

Overall, the balance of evidence indicates that use of LES [low energy sweeteners] in place of sugar, in children and adults, leads to reduced EI [energy intake] and BW [body weight], and possibly also when compared with water.

It’s worth remembering that these effects are not large. In most of these studies, the observed effect was only a couple of pounds. Dire stories about potential harms from low calorie sweeteners are unfounded. But likewise, these sweeteners don’t offer weight loss miracles.

They’re simply a reasonable alternative to sugar, especially in sweet beverages.

Click here for the systematic review by Rogers et al.

Sweeteners, photograph © Jens Hembach / flickr

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November 29, 2016

4 Responses to “Low Fact Reporting on Sweeteners”

  1. November 29, 2016 at 9:28 am, Emily Cooper said:

    It’s been stated as fact that low calorie sweeteners lead to lower weight – it never hurts to challenge common beliefs and popular opinion with science. Here’s a brand new paper looking at over 1400 human adult subjects:


    Conclusion: “low-calorie sweetener use is independently associated with heavier relative weight, a larger waist, and a higher prevalence and incidence of abdominal obesity suggesting that low-calorie sweetener use may not be an effective means of weight control”

    • November 30, 2016 at 3:44 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Emily! As stated above, “these sweeteners don’t offer weight loss miracles.” However, the PLOS study you cite speaks only to correlation, not causation. Reminds me of our President-elect tweeting “I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke.”

  2. November 29, 2016 at 4:48 pm, Michael said:

    For people with weight or metabolic disease issues; there seems to be consensus that sugar is best to be reduced or even avoided. This involves a gradual recalibration of habitual taste expectations. Switching to things that taste sweet, but don’t have sugar in them, may hinder this taste recalibration.

    Perhaps ‘big food’ is moving on to develop artificial salt?!

    • November 30, 2016 at 3:51 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Michael! That concept is very helpful to some people and irrelevant to others. People come to obesity with a wide range of different dietary habits.