This month’s issue of National Geographic arrived in mailboxes (yes, those still exist) covering a pretty heated topic: The War on Science. You can dig into their feature online, which covers everything from the anti-vaccination movement to fear of “GMOs” or food biotechnology. In the spirit of the NatGeo exploration of the War on Science, we’re digging into key issues of the War on Food Science whether it’s about agricultural production, ingredients, or nutrition.
This week, we’re taking on the science-lacking fight against low-calorie sweeteners, sometimes referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, which are added to foods and beverages to provide sweetness without adding a significant amount of calories. Below we got answers to our questions from John Foreyt, PhD, Director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine; Julie Miller Jones, PhD, CNS, CFS, LN, Fellow of AACCI and ICC, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita of Foods and Nutrition at St. Catherine University; and Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, of Nutrition Communication Services.
FACTS Network: What do we know about low-calorie sweeteners and their impact on our bodies?
Robyn Flipse: The most important thing we know about low-calorie sweeteners is that they can make foods and beverages taste sweet with no or very few calories compared to sugar and other caloric sweeteners. That is a great advantage when you’re trying to manage your weight and you still want enjoy sweet tasting foods and drinks. We know they don’t raise blood glucose levels or insulin requirements, which are important when managing diabetes. We also know they are non-cariogenic, so they don’t contribute to tooth decay. Other than their perceived sweet taste, they have little impact on the body because they mostly pass through it unchanged.
FACTS: What do we know about the safety of low-calorie sweeteners?
Dr. John Foreyt: All approved low-calorie sweeteners have been rigorously studied and reviewed by governmental and scientific bodies worldwide, prior to being used in food and beverages. All. FDA-approved low-calorie sweeteners meet the same standards of safety as other foods and are safe for consumption, including by pregnant women and children.
Dr. Julie Jones: We have bodies of evidence and pronouncements from food safety organizations around the world that these [low-calorie] sweeteners are safe. Yet, naysayers keep saying that this evidence doesn’t exist and that these sweeteners aren’t safe. They quote blogs and books that are not science.
FACTS: Based on the research, do families need to avoid low-calorie sweeteners?
JJ: No. Like everything in nutrition, balance is needed. It’s important to use tools like low-calorie sweeteners in conjunction with a balanced diet, otherwise some patients see the impact of a poor diet and blame low-calorie sweeteners.
JF: Low-calorie sweeteners are a safe, inexpensive, small-change strategy that can help families achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
RF: The no- and low-calorie sweeteners approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can be enjoyed by everyone in the family – that includes children, the elderly, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. I tell my clients that have someone with diabetes in the family, swap out those two pitchers of sweet iced tea in the refrigerator for one made with a low-calorie sweetener. Everyone in the family can enjoy the one made with a low-calorie sweetener.
FACTS: What’s the craziest claim you’ve seen about a low-calorie sweetener or low-calorie sweeteners in general?
JF: You name it. I’ve heard every crackpot claim there is, none of which have any scientific supporting evidence. The Internet is not peer-reviewed.
JJ: The craziest claim I’ve seen is that low-calorie sweeteners cause weight gain. Research actually shows that low-calorie sweeteners are helpful to reduce calories for those struggling with weight. For teens especially, low-calorie sweeteners can help them be able to help them manage their weight and feel more comfortable around their peers.
RF: I am always amazed by the number of people who say and/or believe low-calorie sweeteners can cause cancer, when neither the National Cancer Institute nor American Cancer Society name low-calorie sweeteners as one of the dietary factors that can increase the risk of developing cancer. What the research does show is that obesity increases the risk of certain types of cancer. So using low-calorie sweeteners as part of a weight management program can actually help reduce your risk of cancer later in life.
FACTS: What do you think has led to all the media coverage of low-calorie sweeteners?
JF: I think the media wants a good story. Finding blame for the obesity epidemic is a good story. Low-calorie sweeteners are an easy one to blame. It’s easy to ignore the fact that weight management is a function of energy balance. Calories consumed must equal calories expended.
JJ: Personally, I think that the problem is that safety is unprovable. There are those who use this to question and add fear about “chemicals.” This fear-mongering becomes a powerful way to get followers and attention. The safety story never gets aired.
RF: In 2014, several well-designed clinical trials demonstrated the effectiveness of low-calorie sweeteners as an aid in weight loss, and they were published in peer-reviewed journals. The media coverage of those studies was extensive and justified. Unfortunately, along with that coverage came critiques by individuals who base their remarks on opinions, not facts, or on a poor understanding of the scientific process. These critics create the appearance of a controversy where one doesn’t exist. If you look at the entire body of research supporting the safety of low-calorie sweeteners and the number of food and health organizations around the world that have endorsed their use, the answer is clear.
FACTS: How does science fit into the way low-calorie sweeteners are covered in the media and online?
JF: Frequently, it’s the nonsensical studies, rather than the well-done trials, that get media and online attention.
JJ: I wish science fit better. Those with the ‘mic’ win by using emotion. Many consumers do not understand what makes for sound science. They do not understand that science can change because methods change, that usually studies are evolutionary, not revolutionary. I think we have to showcase studies and reviews like Non-Nutritive Sweeteners and Obesity by John Fernstrom. These studies show that low-calorie sweeteners are useful to people with diabetes and those who struggle to reduce calories.
RF: When you think about all of ways we now receive news — network TV, cable TV, newspapers, online websites, phone apps and other social media platforms — it’s easy to understand why news outlets must compete for our attention. And this need to compete for viewers fuels the sometimes irresponsible way that news is reported.
Far more people are going to read a story under the headline, “Can Aspartame Make You Go Blind?” than one that says, “Levels of Aspartame in U.S. Diets Are Safe.” So the former is used, even if the research does not support it. Most people don’t read the entire article under the headline or the actual study. They miss important details that help explain whether the headline is true. I spend more of my time correcting the misinformation that people read in the news about low-calorie sweeteners than I do actually educating them about nutrition and health. It’s a full-time job!
About the Experts
John Foreyt, PhD is the director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, where he has been a faculty member for over 40 years. He has been involved in research focused on human behavior, specifically in the areas of obesity, diabetes, and other cardiovascular risk factors. He has more than 300 publications and 17 books in these areas and has presented numerous lectures nationally and internationally on these topics. For more about John, click here.
Julie Jones, PhD, CNS, CFS, LN is currently a Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of nutrition in the Department of Family, Consumer and Nutritional Sciences at the St. Catherine University in St. Paul. She received her BS degree from Iowa State University and her Ph.D. in Home Economics and Food Science and Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She regularly writes and speaks about a variety of food safety and nutrition topics and has made several radio and television appearances. She heads the Whole Grains Task Force of the national organization of the American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC) – International. For more about Julie, click here.
Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist and cultural anthropologist specializing in the societal forces shaping eating behavior and food trends. She is also author of the blog, The Everyday RD, and is a media spokesperson and author. Robyn is a consultant for the Calorie Control Council, Coca-Cola Company and McNeil Nutritionals, LLC. For more about Robyn, click here.
For more information, view our low-calorie sweetener fact sheet. While you’re at it, visit part one of the War on Food Science Series, focused on weight loss quick fixes and part two focused on Bisphenol-A (BPA). Stay tuned for the next series installment during March 2015!