Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and stevioside – also known as nonnutritive sweeteners – just can’t seem to get their story straight. On the surface, the benefits seem clear: all the sweetness without taking in any sugar or calories – two things where overconsumption can cause massive health issues. But the benefits of replacing sugar with another sweetener only makes sense if these artificial sweeteners don’t have issues of their own – and a new meta-analysis of existing studies suggests that fake sweeteners may not be any better, and could possibly even be worse, than the real deal.
The new study, published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, looked at seven different randomized control trials, where participants were actually given artificial sweeteners and compared to a control group, and 30 cohort studies, where larger groups of people had their habits tracked over a longer period of time. The researchers were primarily looking to determine if “routine consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners was associated with long-term adverse cardiometabolic effects.” With the trials, the meta-study determined that artificial sweeteners actually had no effect on things like weight and BMI. Meanwhile, the cohort studies actually showed a “modest increase in BMI,” as well as an association “with increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events” (though, worth noting, the researchers did find a publication bias for studies with diabetes as an outcome). Basically, the researchers found that, at best, artificial sweeteners showed no benefit to people’s health, and at worst, these sweeteners actually might have negative health ramifications.
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“We were really interested in the everyday person who is consuming these products not to lose weight, but because they think it's the healthier choice, for many years on end,” Meghan Azad, a research scientist at the University of Manitoba and the paper’s lead author, told NPR. She stressed that more research needs to be done, but in general, the paper found that "there is no clear benefit for weight loss, and there's a potential association with increased weight gain, diabetes and other negative cardiovascular outcomes.” When it comes to sweets, apparently we just can’t win.