Even since our War on Science piece on low-calorie sweeteners, we’ve seen a new unscientific attack mount. Consider the latest headline: “Soda shouldn’t be called ‘diet,’ advocacy group says.”
When you describe something as “diet,” what does it mean? It’s a food or beverage “suitable for consumption with a weight-reduction diet.” For instance, one that reduces your calorie intake, as low-calorie sweeteners do when substituted for sugar. So where does this complaint come from? Very, very selective and questionable science.
The article did not present the full body of scientific literature on low-calorie sweeteners and weight, instead including only information about studies finding a “link” between low-calorie sweeteners and weight gain. In fact, the vast majority of clinical research on low-calorie sweeteners shows that they can aid in weight loss or weight management.
A number of well-conducted studies and reviews on low-calorie sweeteners and weight management have been published in the last few years show just that, but haven’t made it into news coverage of this new complaint:
- Paige E Miller and Vanessa Perez conducted a recent meta-analysis of 15 randomized controlled trials and 9 prospective cohort studies on low-calorie sweeteners and weight management, spanning 35 years. This was the most comprehensive scientific evaluation of low-calorie sweeteners and body weight and composition studies to date. The study supports conclusions that low-calorie sweeteners are an effective weight management tool.
- G. Harvey Anderson and his team published a review of human studies on low-calorie sweeteners and weight management in The Journal of Nutrition. They conclude that there is no evidence that low-calorie sweeteners cause higher body weights in adults.
- A review by France Bellisle in Current Obesity Reports examined numerous studies on low-calorie sweeteners, appetite/cravings, and weight management. It concluded that there is “no consistent association with a heightened appetite for sugar or sweet products. In fact, in many instances, the use of LES (low-energy sweeteners) is associated with a lower intake of sweet tasting substances. Recent intervention studies in children and adults confirm that LES use tends to reduce rather than increase the intake of sugar-containing foods, and to facilitate, rather than impair, weight loss. Longer-term randomized studies are needed to confirm the benefits of LES in different aspects of weight control: prevention of weight gain, weight loss, and/or maintenance of weight loss.”
- John Peters and his team at Temple University and University of Colorado, Denver published a randomized-controlled trial on low-calorie sweeteners and weight in 2014. They found that, compared with those who drank water, people who drank beverages sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners lost more weight, felt less hungry, and saw significant reductions in total and LDL cholesterol levels.
A few studies that have suggested a link between low-calorie sweeteners and weight gain are limited by issues with methodology, design, or other factors that limit their application to humans. It is important when reviewing scientific studies to consider the type of study and whether its conclusions can show cause-and-effect.
Low-calorie sweeteners are not a magic bullet. They’re one tool for people looking to manage their weight. But to try to discourage individuals who manage a sweet tooth while trying to cut calories from using a valuable tool isn’t just bad science; it’s completely counterproductive.
For more science-based information on low-calorie sweeteners and weight management, check out: