New research shows sugar substitutes are not healthier than real sugar

Zero calories, zero weight loss. Zero truth.
Zero calories, zero weight loss. Zero truth.
Image: AP Photo/Jenny Kane
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Ready for a bitter reality check on popular non-sugar sweeteners? They aren’t any better for you than the real thing.

Technically, they might not be any worse either. Still, in spite of heavy marketing efforts, a new study published this week in the British Medical Journal shows there is no solid science backing claims by artificial sweetener companies that their products are inherently healthier for people.

A team of European researchers, commissioned by the World Health Organization pulled 56 individual studies into non-sugar sweeteners that involved nearly 14,000 people in total. They then checked intake of the sweeteners against changes in body weight or body mass index, oral health, eating behavior, cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, and mood swings, among other things.

The new metanalysis of the studies is the most comprehensive look yet at what the field of research around non-sugar sweeteners and their impact on our health. Despite that, it’s still not entirely conclusive. ”No evidence was seen for health benefits from non-sugar sweeteners and potential harms could not be excluded,” the researchers wrote in the study. “The certainty of the included evidence ranged from very low to moderate, and our confidence in the reported effect estimates is accordingly limited.”

Put simply, the science just isn’t there yet to say anything conclusive. That’s not uncommon in the field of nutrition research, which is a persnickety space for researchers to operate. It isn’t ethical to pluck people from life, lock them in rooms, feed them highly specific diets for long periods of time, and then measure their bodily reactions. For that reason, nutrition scientists rely on uncontrolled methods that often ask people to self-report what they eat.

While the new study is important in that it chips away at years of exaggerated marketing on the parts of sweetener companies, aside from encouraging people to reconsider their perceived beliefs around sweeteners it doesn’t offer any guidance for people who have long turned to sugar alternatives in an attempt to live healthier lifestyles.

A 1983 commercial for the artificial sweetener brand Sweet ‘n Low makes the case that the product can be used to help people cut calories. Obesity was already a prevalent public health problem, and Sweet ‘n Low was just one of several sugar substitutes—including Splenda, Equal, Sorbitol, and NutraSweet—people turned to thinking it’d help to avoid obesity and the health risks linked to it.

The new study basically debunks that ad and similar promises made by other artificial sweeteners, which had adopted the same basic pitch to consumers: that they represent a healthier alternative to sugar.

The authors of the study say there is a lot more work to be done to understand the how artificial sweeteners may or may not be linked to negative health outcomes, such as cancer. One of the biggest hurdles to that is that most of the studies that have tackled that issue have not been conducted over a long period of time.