The sweetener and soft drink industries are retaliating against a study that suggests that sucralose, an artificial sweetener, increases weight gain and not weight loss. Additionally, the study concluded that artificial sweeteners might make certain people feel more hungry and have increased food cravings.

The research on artificial sweeteners was conducted by Keck School of Medicine of USC and funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The study is one of the largest to date to examine the effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on brain activity and appetite responses in different segments of the population.

“There is controversy surrounding the use of artificial sweeteners because a lot of people are using them for weight loss,” says Kathleen Page, the study’s corresponding author.

“While some studies suggest they may be helpful, others show they may be contributing to weight gain, Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders,” she adds.

This research comes when the demand for artificial sweeteners is rising, and they have been identified as beneficial for dental health.

Conflicting opinions
The International Sweeteners Association (ISA) is warning that the study results should be treated lightly. It points out that the lead study author recommended interpreting these findings with caution since all participants fasted overnight before the study and were likely more hungry than usual.

“In contrast to the claims from the USC study, the results from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) consistently show that the consumption of low or no-calorie sweeteners, including sucralose, actually leads to lower short-term calorie intake when consumed in place of sugar,” an ISA spokesperson tells NutritionInsight.The study is one of the largest to date to examine the effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on brain activity and appetite responses.

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“These calorie savings are important, as shown in a recent systematic review and meta-analysis of 35 RCTs, which found that the total energy intake was significantly lower by approximately 130 calories with low or no-calorie sweeteners compared to sugar.”

Additionally, Gavin Partington, British Soft Drinks Association director-general, adds that “non-sugar sweeteners are safe, according to all leading health authorities in the world, and that’s why they have been used in a vast array of food, medicine, dental and beverage products for several decades.”

Further research examining the effect of low or no-calorie sweeteners on body weight shows that replacing sugar with low or no-calorie sweeteners leads to moderate yet significant weight reduction, chimes in the ISA spokesperson.

“It is worth highlighting also that the results of the study by USC regarding calorie intake do not support the conclusions outlined by the authors. Participants with obesity did not eat more at the ad libitum meal after the sucralose versus the sugar drink consumption,” they add.

Monitoring sweetener’s effects
The researchers conducted the study on 74 participants who, during three different visits, consumed 300 mL of a beverage sweetened with sucrose (table sugar), a drink sweetened with sucralose or water as a control.

In the two hours that followed, the researchers measured:

  • Activation of regions of the brain responsible for appetite and food cravings in response to pictures of high-calorie foods like a burger and donut using an imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging.
  • Levels of glucose (blood sugar), insulin and other metabolic hormones in the blood.
  • The amount of food consumed at a snack buffet provided at the end of each session.
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The study group comprised an equal number of males and females identified as healthy weight, overweight or obese, allowing researchers to explore potential differences between population groups.

The study results showed an overall decrease in levels of hormones that signal the “full feeling” in the body after participants drank the sucralose-containing drink compared to the sucrose-containing drink, suggesting artificially-sweetened beverages may not be effective in suppressing hunger.The ISA points to reliability issues in this latest study.

Finally, after female participants drank the sucralose-containing drink, they ate more at the snack buffet than after they drank the sucrose-containing drink. In contrast, snack food intake did not differ for male participants.

“At a time when obesity and non-communicable diseases including diabetes remain major global health challenges, and in light of current public health recommendations to reduce overall sugar intake, low/no-calorie sweeteners including sucralose can help create healthier food environments, including in helping reduce overall sugar and calorie intake,” the ISA spokesperson concludes.

Controversial sweeteners?
NutritionInsight has previously reported on the controversy surrounding sweeteners. A study published in Molecules found that the natural sweetener stevia may disrupt communication between different bacteria and the gut microbiome.

Additionally, an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement called for the amount of no- or low-calorie sweeteners to be listed on product labels amid concerns for children’s health.