If you're trying to watch your weight or just be healthier in general, choosing artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and stevioside over real sugar might seem like a good idea.
After all, consuming too much sugar is linked to complications like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, so wouldn't it make sense to go for the alternative? According to new research, maybe not!
A new scientific review of 37 previously published studies published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal maintains that there is no evidence that nonnutritive (zero calorie) sweeteners aid in weight loss and could actually be responsible for health problems later on.
"We found that consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners was associated with modest long-term weight gain in observational studies," explained researchers. "Our results also extend previous meta-analyses that showed higher risks of Type 2 diabetes and hypertension with regular consumption."
So instead of helping us lose weight and promote good health as an alternative to sugar, those artificial sweeteners could potentially be causing our bodies harm.
Seven of the studies were randomized trials; the remaining 30 observational studies followed nearly 406,000 people for more than a decade. Some of the research linked artificial sweeteners to weight loss and others to weight gain.
In the randomized control trials, which included 1,003 people, no link was found between artificial sweetener consumption and fluctuation in body mass index. But of the 405,907 people included in the rest of the studies, artificial sweetener use was actually correlated with an increase in BMI, waist circumference, weight, obesity, high blood pressure, heart problems and metabolic syndrome — essentially the very things people who choose artificial sweeteners over sugar are probably trying to avoid.
"I think most people consuming artificial sweeteners assume these products will help them avoid weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, and yet we are seeing the opposite association from multiple studies," lead author Meghan B. Azad of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg tells Yahoo Beauty. "Not many studies have looked at the long-term effect of consuming artificial sweeteners. This is also surprising, given the large proportion of people consuming these products on a regular basis.
"This should inspire consumers to stop and think about whether they want to be consuming artificial sweeteners, especially on a regular basis, because we do not know if they are a truly harmless alternative to sugar," Azad adds. "People are generally consuming nonnutritive sweeteners believing they are a 'healthy choice,' but this may not be true."
What still isn't clear is the direct relationship between these sweeteners and the bevy of health issues they could be perpetuating. For example, is a person changing their eating habits and eating more food in general because of the sugar substitute, or is it the substitute itself that is causing a person to gain weight?
Another reason the review is fairly inconclusive is because it's looking at artificial sweeteners as a group instead of individually. "It's possible that different sweeteners have different effects, but we were not able to examine that because of the studies available," Azad tells Reuters Health.
Clearly, more research is needed to determine how and why artificial sweeteners might be creating these health problems, but in the meantime you can educate yourself on the best and worst sugar substitutes by clicking here.
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