It’s OK to Hate Sweeteners, Just Don’t Wrap It in Science

Nutrition has more than its share of hot button issues. But low-calorie sweeteners stir especially strong feelings and sensational headlines. This week, the Washington Post warns us that “diet drinks are associated with weight gain.” Reader’s Digest tells us to avoid them “at all costs.” America’s president figured this out years ago.

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

No kidding. This insight comes straight from Statistics for Dummies. Associations are a starting point for sorting out a question – not the end point. People who take aspirin often have headaches. But that’s because aspirin relieves headaches, not because it causes them.

People use artificial sweeteners because they hope it will help them consume fewer calories and lose or keep from gaining weight. Most (but not all) people who worry about their weight are carrying some extra pounds.

To answer the question of causation, it’s best to do a real experiment. And the randomized, controlled trials of low-calorie sweeteners have shown either a modest benefit or no benefit. In other words, they offer no miracles and they cause no harm.

Redundant Publications Building a Bias of Familiarity

“Haven’t I heard this before?” The publication that generated this week’s misleading headlines offered nothing new. It was a review paper that offered no significant new insights. But it gave the authors a chance to reinforce a bias that people should fear these sugar substitutes.

Advertisers know it. Psychologists know it. Even our president knows it. If you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it. It’s called a mere-exposure effect. For selling ideas and products, it’s great. But for scientific rigor, it’s a real drag.

So, if you want to hate low-calorie sweeteners, fine. You won’t be missing out on a weight loss miracle.

But don’t pretend that science is on your side. It’s not.

For the offending publication, click here. For a more objective perspective, we recommend this straightforward overview from dietitian Connie Diekman.

Sweet, photograph © Ted Kyle / flickr

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July 22, 2017

2 Responses to “It’s OK to Hate Sweeteners, Just Don’t Wrap It in Science”

  1. July 24, 2017 at 2:39 pm, David Sweanor said:

    Of course those who hate low calorie sweeteners and promote those views with health scares are almost certainly causing harm by pushing people to substitute the most obvious alternative – sugar. By attacking a low risk activity they encourage a higher risk one. This is typical of absolutist ‘abstinence-only’ efforts on a distressingly wide range of topics.

    • July 24, 2017 at 3:54 pm, Ted said:

      Well said, David. Thanks!