Statements in Harvard Health Letter Not Supported by Scientific Research

December 13, 2011

Information in “Ask the doctor: Are artificial sweeteners a good alternative to sugar?” which appeared in the December 2011 edition of the Harvard Health Letter makes claims that are not substantiated by scientific research.

ATLANTA (December 13, 2011) — The article stated that “artificial sweeteners are extremely sweet — hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than table sugar. So people who habitually consume them may wind up desensitized to sweetness. Healthful, satiating foods that are less sweet — such as fruits and vegetables — may become unappetizing by comparison. As a result, the overall quality of the diet may decline.” However, it is important to note that while high-intensity sweeteners are sweeter than sugar, less of them are used to achieve a comparable level of sweetness. Additionally, studies with adults, as well as infants, have demonstrated that the pleasant response to sweet is an innate, reflex reaction rather than a learned response.

Research has found that people using low-calorie, sugar-free foods and beverages ate less total and saturated fat, cholesterol, energy, and added sugars, while consuming significantly higher amounts of vitamins and minerals from their foods. Dr. Sigman-Grant, author of one study on the subject stated, “Those using products containing low-calorie sweeteners were more aware of the nutrients they were eating and were more likely to eat leafy green vegetables, fruit and yogurt.” Thus, the researchers found that those using low-calorie sweeteners were not only eating fewer calories overall, but were also eating more healthfully.

Dr. Ludwig, author of the Harvard Health Newsletter article, states that there is a “possibility that artificial sweeteners could cause weight gain,” but the study referenced is an epidemiological study that is not designed to show cause and effect. He acknowledges “people might consume artificial sweeteners because they’ve gained weight, not the other way around.” The vast majority of scientific evidence shows that low-calorie sweeteners do not stimulate appetite or food intake, nor do they cause weight gain.

Dr. Rolls, author of a review study on low-calorie sweeteners said, “If the individual uses the consumption of a low-calorie food as an excuse to eat a high-calorie food, or if the individual is not actively trying to restrict intake, daily energy intake may remain unchanged. However, if intense sweeteners are part of a weight-control program, they could aid calorie control by providing palatable foods with reduced energy. It needs to be stressed that there are no data suggesting that consumption of foods and drinks with intense sweeteners promotes food intake and weight gain in dieters.”

The use of low-calorie sweeteners in place of sugar can result in products significantly reduced in calories when compared with their traditional counterparts. In light of the current obesity epidemic, it is important that consumers have available a wide variety of good tasting, reduced-calorie products as tools to assist to them in addressing their calorie goals.

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  • Ludwig DS. Ask the doctor: Are artificial sweeteners a good alternative to sugar? Harvard Health Letter [serial online]. 2011; December. Available from Harvard Health Publications. Accessed December 1, 2011.
  • Maller O, Desor JA. Effect of taste on ingestion by human newborns. Fourth Symposium on Oral Sensation and Perception: Development of the fetus and infant. U.S. Government Printing Office; Washington, DC. (1973) 279–291.
  • Pfaffmann, C. Biological and behavioral substrates of the sweet tooth. Taste and Development, The Genesis of Sweet Preference. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. (1997) 3-24.
  • Rolls. Effects of intense sweeteners on hunger, food intake, and body weight: a review. Am J Clin Nutr. 53 (1991) 872-878.
  • Sigman-Grant M, Hseih G. Reported use of Reduced-sugar foods and beverages reflect high-quality diets. J of Food Science. 70 (2005)
  • Steiner, J. E. The gustofacial response. The Fourth Symposium on Oral Sensation and Perception. National Institute of Dental Research, National Institutes of Health. (1973)
faq2Do you have questions about low-calorie sweeteners? Want to learn more about maintaining a healthy lifestyle? You asked and we listened. Our resident Registered Dietitians answered the most popular questions about low-calorie sweeteners.

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