Artificial sweeteners have gained immense popularity in the era of obesity epidemic. In many products they have replaced sugar and are ideal for slimming and shaping the body – they ensured the pleasure of eating sweet products without worrying about calories. Based on long-term studies, however, it has been shown that artificial sweeteners in the long run contribute to weight gain and not to its decline, affect appetite and lead to increased caloric intake from food.
Saccharin – the oldest artificial sweetener – was discovered in 1879. For decades it was available for diabetics. During the World War II period, there was a large sugar shortage, and saccharin increased in popularity. Later fashion for a very slim figure contributed to the increase of its usage. Women were willing to turn caloric sugar into a calorie-free sweetener. Other popular cyclamate sweeteners (synthesized in 1937), Aspartame (1965), Acesulfame K (1967), and sucralose (1979). Atomic Agency for Foods and Medicines considered all sweeteners safe for our health. In view of the research and development activity, the cyclamate was withdrawn from the market for 30 years. The allegations of carcinogenicity have, however, been repudiated as a result of the analysis of the study, and nowadays artificial sweeteners are considered harmless in this aspect.
The amount of products containing artificial sweeteners is still growing. Several decades ago they were targeted at diabetics and people who need to control their blood sugar levels. Currently, „light” and „sugar free” products are available everywhere and for everyone. In the United States between 1999 and 2004 more than 6,000 new sweetener products were introduced. Most often they are in „light” carbonated drinks, but also in fruit drinks and nectars, yoghurts, sweets and even baby food. Taking care of the slim figure, we often exchange the sugar in hot beverages for a sweetener.
Do artificial sweeteners help you lose weight?
Low calorie or calorie-free artificial sweeteners have become very popular when sugar was hailed as the chief culprit of the obesity epidemic in developed countries. They have replaced sugar and other high-calorie counterparts in ready foods and in many people’s kitchens. Their main advantage is the ability to reduce calories taken with diet without sacrificing the sweet tastes. Changing sugar to sweeteners was supposed to contribute to weight loss in society and reduce the risk of overweightness and obesity. Due to the recommendation of sweeteners as a way to fight obesity, the consumption of „light” carbonated beverages increased from 3 percent in 1965 to 20 percent today.
Misuse of artificial sweeteners can contribute to weight gain.
It appears, however, that in the long term the consumption of artificial sweeteners does not favour loss of excessive weight, and may even contribute to gaining weight. Such conclusions were drawn on the basis of large-scale epidemiological studies.
Sample studies on the effects of artificial sweeteners on body weight
- The San Antonio Heart Study in the 1980s surveyed 3682 adults. Observation lasted between 7 to 8 years. It was noted that in people who drank beverages containing artificial sweeteners, the increase in BMI (body mass index) compared to the baseline BMI measured at baseline was higher for those who did not drink such beverages. The BMI increased on average by 1.01 kg / m2 in the non-sweetener using group and by 1.78 kg / m2 in the group consuming sweetener.
- In the 1980s, the American Cancer Society conducted an annual survey of 78,694 women of similar age, ethnicity and material status. It was shown that women who regularly consumed artificial sweeteners increased their body mass by 7.1 percent on average and women who did not use sweeteners by 2.7 percent.
- In 2006, a study was conducted for 10 years on 2371 girls. At the start of the study, they were 9 years old. It has been shown that drinking carbonated drinks both sweetened with sugar and artificial sweeteners is linked to an increase in daily caloric intake.
- A study lasting 25 years and published in 2005 showed that drinking artificial sweeteners increases the risk of being overweight than drinking sugary sweeteners. The group who consumed sweeteners was 65 percent more likely to be overweight and 41 per cent obese.
- An analysis by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999-2010 showed that overweight people who drink soft drinks consume similar calories to overweight people drinking sugary drinks. This means that the group consuming sweetener consumes more solid food, both in the form of meals and snacks.
How do artificial sweeteners affect appetite?
It turns out that „sweetness without consequences” does not exist. With the increasing popularity of artificial sweeteners, the belief that it is the perfect substitute for sugar has spread to us – it is a pleasure to enjoy the sweet taste without the calories that are inherent in sugar. Long-term studies have shown, however, that sweeteners have a strong influence on the body. Artificial sweeteners, which in large quantities are particularly found in carbonated beverages, are responsible for a stronger activation of the reward centre in the brain than the sugar. This is dangerous for controlling energy consumption because one of the mechanisms that affect the amount of food consumed is the operation of the reward centre. This centre is stimulated by the sweet taste of food, and then reacts to the incoming energy in the body. In case of sweeteners there is a stimulation of the sensors in the brain, but energy does not appear, which stimulates us to continue to eat. The measure of energy consumption and appetite control is thus disturbed by sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners activate the brain reward centre more strongly than sugar.
Studies have shown that eating foods with sweet taste affects appetite, whether the taste comes from sugar or sweetener. Water sweetened with aspartame induced in healthy adult males with normal body weight increased subjective appetite, and – as opposed to glucose and pure water – increased hunger. Earlier administration of glucose reduced the pleasure of sucrose consumption. Such a phenomenon has not been observed with prior administration of aspartame. Another study on artificial sweeteners has shown that sweeteners’ consumption has increased their motivation to eat and show more products on the list of preferred foods.
The recreation of this phenomenon was attempted in a rat study. An animal model can be even more accurate because it excludes subjective judgment and voluntary control of the diet, or significant factors in human research. Animal studies have shown that rats fed saccharin were more likely to consume calories and body fat than those fed with glucose. Additionally, the sweetened meal with saccharin given before the main course did not reduce the intake of this dish. This shows that the lack of calories associated with sweet taste can cause compensatory overeating and lead to positive energy balance.
Artificial sweeteners and metabolic disorders
One recent study on the effect of artificial sweeteners on appetite was conducted at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. It was found that artificial sweeteners cause metabolic disorders and induce a state of hunger in the brain, which in the long run translates into weight gain. The study found that fruit flies that were fed artificial sweeteners ate 30 percent more calories than those on a sugar diet. When sucralose was excluded from the diet, caloric intake decreased to the same values as for sugar-fed cousins. As a result of the analysis it was found that consumption of sucralose increased the motivation of the flies to eat real sugar. The sensitivity of the taste receptors to sweet taste has also increased, resulting in greater pleasure being felt after eating sugar.