Study finds artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain, but experts disagree
A new study finds that sucralose is linked to weight gain, but experts say that such artificial sweeteners are a safe alternative to sugar and help weight loss and management.
During the annual Endocrine Society meeting in Florida, researchers at George Washington University last week said preliminary findings of a study suggest a positive correlation between sucralose and weight gain.
“We believe that low-calorie sweeteners promote additional fat formation by allowing more glucose to enter the cells, and promotes inflammation, which may be more detrimental in obese individuals,” Dr. Sabyasachi Sen, who led the study, said in a press statement.
More research is needed in large numbers of people with diabetes and obesity to confirm the findings, said Dr. Sen, a professor of medicine and endocrinology at George Washington University.
His team tested sucralose on stem cells and found that — for an amount equivalent to four cans of diet soda — it increased markers of fat production and inflammation in genes.
“Many health-conscious individuals like to consume low-calorie sweeteners as an alternative to sugar. However, there is increasing scientific evidence that these sweeteners promote metabolic dysfunction,” Dr. Sen said.
The population most at risk from these findings are those who are obese and diabetics.
Sucralose, which is derived from sugar, was first discovered in England in 1976. It’s known as a “non-nutritive sweetener” (NNS), with no caloric value, and is supposed to pass through the body.
The Food and Drug Administration approved sucralose as an artificial sweetener in 1999 after at least 110 studies to ensure its safety. The American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association advocate for its use in weight loss and in managing diabetes.
Considering that 21.9 million Americans were known to have diabetes in 2012 and one-third of Americans are obese, the benefits of artificial sweeteners in weight loss could outweigh the potential damages.
“Replacing sugary foods and drinks with sugar-free options containing NNSs is one way to limit calories and achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Also, when used to replace food and drinks with added sugars, it can help people with diabetes manage blood glucose levels,” the American Heart Association says on its website.
FDA guidelines for consumption of sweeteners are not conservative. The “acceptable daily intake” of sucralose is 23 packets of the commercial brand Splenda. Aspartame, or Equal, is also 23 packets. For Truvia, a sweetener derived from the stevia leaf, the FDA recommends no more than nine packets.
Lauri Wright, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that by replacing sugar or sugary drinks with artificial sweeteners, a person can save 300 calories per day and lose around a pound a week.
“Based on the evidence of the role of sugar in inflammation and chronic disease and obesity, we recommend limiting added sugars as what is found in sugary beverages, candy, etc. Sugar substitutes can be a safe alternative,” Ms. Wright said.
Studies in the International Journal of Obesity in 2015 and 2017 found that the use of sweeteners leads to reduced body weight and any increases in glucose or insulin levels compared to sugar consumption are minimal.
But Dr. Sen’s findings and other studies like it seek to challenge the accepted notion that the body doesn’t communicate with the sweetener.
A study published in February in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism found supportive evidence that habitual ingestion of sweeteners was associated with a risk for Type 2 diabetes.
“A precautionary principle should be applied to the promotion of these products that are still largely recommended as healthy sugar substitutes,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.