Artificial Sweeteners Linked to Obesity, Heart Disease and More

A number of studies have assessed the impact of artificial sweeteners on public health, with conflicting results. Over the past decade, consumption of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin and stevia, is on the increase, with people believing them to be a safe alternative to sugar. But, as a matter of fact, evidence on the potential health benefits of these sweeteners has so far been inconclusive. Recently, a Canadian study has suggested a link between artificial sweeteners and a range of chronic health problems.

The low-calorie or calorie-free sweeteners are used instead of sugar to sweeten foods, drinks, desserts, chewing gum, toothpaste and even found in children’s pain-relieving drugs. Food manufacturers and dieticians claim artificial sweeteners are perfectly safe to eat or drink on a daily basis. They also believe that sweeteners are a health win, helping prevent tooth decay, control blood sugar levels and reduce one’s calorie intake. However, research into sweeteners is inconsistent. Even though the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association have given their stamp of approval to artificial sweeteners, some studies still show evidence that sweeteners are harmful for humans and may lead to deep belly fat.

A new study by a team of international researchers in Canada now claims that low-calorie sweeteners actually contribute to the risk of obesity. Not only obesity, they may cause a range of chronic ailments, including long-term weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases, claim the researchers.

To reach their findings, lead author Dr. Ryan Zarychanski, and a team from the University of Manitoba’s George & Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation and the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, Winnipeg, conducted a systematic review of 37 studies that tracked health records of over 400,000 people for an average of 10 years. Surprisingly, the review did not show a consistent effect of artificial sweeteners on weight loss.

Dr. Zarychanski, who is an assistant professor, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba, says: “Despite the fact that millions of individuals routinely consume artificial sweeteners, relatively few patients have been included in clinical trials of these products.”

When the researchers focused on seven randomized controlled trials, which included 1003 people followed for a mean of 6 months, they found no trial showing a clear benefit or a consistent effect on weight loss. “We found that data from clinical trials do not clearly support the intended benefits of artificial sweeteners for weight management,” Dr. Zarychanski added.

Also, the observational studies reviewed also showed an association between intake of artificial sweeteners and relatively higher risks of several health issues, including weight gain and obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease among other ailments.

“Caution is warranted until the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners are fully characterized,” said lead author Dr. Meghan Azad, , Ph.D., assistant professor, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba.

“Given the widespread and increasing use of artificial sweeteners, and the current epidemic of obesity and related diseases, more research is needed to determine the long-term risks and benefits of these products,” she concluded.

The findings were published online in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).