C’mere Sweetie: The Role of Low- and No-Calorie Sweeteners in Weight Loss
When non-nutritive sweeteners were first discovered, they seemed ideal. They provided foods with sweetness, but without the sugary calories. A boon for diabetics, people wanting to lose weight, and our teeth. These products have been used in a wide array of different foods and drinks, from diet soft drinks to breakfast cereals to confectionary to dairy products. Artificially sweetened foods are popular: around one in three consumers worldwide have recently purchased a low- or no-sugar product such as a beverage or yoghurt, according to a global survey on consumer behavior by DSM. And it seems that keeping the pounds off is the most important reason consumers buy products with a reduced sugar content. Half of purchases were made to help with weight loss or weight maintenance, and 40% due to concern about diabetes or other health problems. Additionally, 50% of consumers reported worries about the effect of excess sugar on their children’s weight, and three quarters on their own weight.
However, on the weight loss front, all is not simple in the world of nutrition. Some research has found that non-nutritive sweeteners are associated with weight gain, not loss. Bellisle and co-workers reported that users of low-sugar products were heavier than non-users. Gatenby and associates found that reducing the sugar content of the diet had no effect on weight loss in a randomized trial. Consumers of artificially sweetened beverages had a greater risk of weight gain, according to Fowler and colleagues. Yang provides a summary of other evidence linking non-caloric sweeteners to weight gain.
Swithers, Martin and Davidson review several mechanisms by which non-nutritive sweeteners could actually contribute to obesity. One is that by uncoupling of the sweet taste from its caloric content, the body no longer learns to associate sweetness with having eaten, and loses the ability to regulate energy consumption. Bellisle suggests that frequent exposure to sweet tastes may increase liking for sweetness, such that consuming a calorie-reduced soft drink may increase overall consumption of sweet foods. These studies suggest that diet products – normally seen as useful weight loss tools – may actually hamper efforts to cut down on calories.
These controversial results contrast with the results of other researchers. Renwick and Molinary found the mechanistic evidence for a link between obesity and non-nutritive sweeteners to be patchy at best, and not supported by trials in humans. The meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials by Miller and Perez reports that substituting regular soft drinks with lower or non-caloric alternatives is effective and useful at producing modest weight loss. Bellisle also found that high-intensity, low-energy sweeteners facilitates weight loss by reducing amounts of foods containing sugar that are consumed as part of the diet. The weight of evidence appears to lie on the side of low and no-sugar products being able to support weight loss. As food producers are encouraged to reduce the calorie content of the foods that they provide, sweeteners have their place in helping consumers enjoy sweet-tasting products without the calories.
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