The State of the Science on Sweet Taste Preference
By: Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD —
August 30, 2018 — Headlines and news stories often proclaim that consuming foods and beverages with low-and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS) creates an increased preference for sweet foods, stimulates sweet cravings and leads to overeating. This belief may stem from two sources. First, observational studies linking diet soda or low calorie sweetener intake with overweight or obesity have been used to support the claim. (1) Secondly, a few animal studies support this idea. In one study, mice preferred glucose to -LNCS after being offered glucose in a hungry state. (2) In the second study, the habitual intake of sucralose led to increased food intake in fruit flies and mice. (3) While animals are useful for gathering preliminary data on research questions and pointing researchers in the appropriate direction for future studies in humans, these results cannot be applied to humans.
In contrast, randomized controlled trials have shown that LNCS may actually support weight loss, particularly as part of a behavioral weight loss program. (1) In addition, members of the National Weight Control Registry, who have successfully lost and kept weight off, consumed three times more artificially sweetened soft drinks, more water and significantly fewer sugar-sweetened soft drinks compared to a group of individuals who were never overweight. (4)
The majority of the evidence in humans does not support the contention that LNCS consumption stimulates sweet taste preferences.
Taking a step back, let’s briefly explore the research on sweet taste preference. Studies suggest that sweet taste preferences are inborn. The pleasurable response to sweet taste is universal although it can be influenced by other factors like genetics, nutritional deficiencies, chronic disease and medications. However, the intensity of sweetness preferred in foods and drinks can vary significantly among individuals. Also, because sugar is a quick source of energy, preference for sweetness is reinforced. Consuming sweet-tasting products, however, stimulates “sensory-specific satiety,” a general decrease in the attractiveness of all sweet products. (5)
In looking at research in humans, the bulk of evidence demonstrates that foods and beverages with low calorie sweeteners do not increase sweet taste preference. A summary of seven studies follows.
- Research in females with either a habitually high or low intake of low calorie sweetened beverages found that those with a low intake of artificially-sweetened beverages had an increase in appetite in response to sweet taste, while consumers with a high intake did not. The effect of calorie intake on appetite did not differ between the two groups. Researchers concluded the lack of response suggests an adaptation to sweet taste as a result of the habitual dietary pattern of these women. (6)
- A review of 21 controlled studies investigating the impact of consuming sweet-tasting foods or beverages on the subsequent acceptance or choice of sweet foods and beverages found that a higher sweet taste exposure tends to lead to a reduced preference for sweetness in the short term, but very limited effects in the long term. (7)
- When researchers investigated the perceived sweetness intensity of a variety of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) in 400 participants, they found no evidence that NNS “hijack” or overstimulate sweet receptors to produce elevated sweet sensations. (8)
- A study in 166 healthy non-obese adults who were infrequent users of low calorie sweeteners determined if beverages vs. water consumed with meals produced different effects on calorie and food intake in the short-term and long-term. Results showed that water and low calorie sweetened beverages did not differ in their effects on the selection of sweet foods or total calorie or macronutrient intakes. (9)
- A double-blind randomized controlled trial in 203 children who replaced their habitual daily sugar-containing drink with either a sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverage for 18 months investigated satiety, liking and wanting. The sugar-sweetened and sugar-free beverages produced similar satiety. Researchers concluded that children given sugar-free instead of sugar-containing drinks might not make up the missing calories from other sources. (10)
- In the 6-month weight-loss randomized control trial CHOICE study, 210 women, divided into two groups, substituted at least 2 servings/day (≥200 kcal) of sugar-sweetened beverages with either water or low calorie sweetened diet beverages (DB). Participants in both groups showed positive changes in calorie intake and dietary patterns. The DB group consumed fewer caloric beverages and ate fewer desserts than the water group. The authors concluded that short-term consumption of DBs, compared with water, does not increase preferences for sweet foods and beverages. (11)
- Finally, a 2018 study found no significant differences for hunger, desire to eat, fullness, or thirst in 100 subjects who consumed an aspartame-sweetened, fruit-flavored beverage daily for 12 weeks, nor were there any changes in glycemia, appetite, body weight, or body composition in healthy, lean adults. (12)
The majority of the evidence in humans does not support the contention that LNCS consumption stimulates sweet taste preferences. As registered dietitians or other health professionals, we can feel confident in recommending low calorie-sweetened foods and beverages to patients, clients and consumers as part of a nutrient-rich, health-promoting meal plan.
“Nonnutritive Sweeteners in Weight Management and Chronic Disease: A Review”
Obesity 26:635, 2018
“Glucose utilization rates regulate intake levels of artificial sweeteners” J Physiol 591:5727, 2013
“Sucralose Promotes Food Intake
through NPY and a Neuronal Fasting Response” Cell Metab 24:75, 2016
“Use of artificial sweeteners and fat-modified foods in weight loss maintainers and always-normal weight individuals” Int J Obes33:1183, 2009
“Sweetness and Food Preference” J Nutr142: 1142S–1148S, 2012
“Habitual high and low consumers of artificially-sweetened beverages: Effects of sweet taste and energy on short-term appetite” Physiol Behav 92:479, 2007
“Sweet taste exposure and the subsequent acceptance and preference for sweet taste in the diet: systematic review of the published literature” Am J Clin Nutr 107:405, 2018
“Nonnutritive sweeteners are not supernormal stimuli” Int J Obes 39:254, 2015
“Beverages containing low energy sweeteners do not differ from water in their effects on appetite, energy intake and food choices in healthy, non-obese French adults” Appetite 125:557, 2018
“The Effect of Sugar-Free Versus Sugar-Sweetened Beverages on Satiety, Liking and Wanting: An 18 Month Randomized Double-Blind Trial in Children” PLOS ONE 8:e78039, 2013
“Does diet-beverage intake affect dietary consumption patterns? Results from the Choose Healthy Options Consciously Everyday (CHOICE) randomized clinical trial” Am J Clin Nutr 97:604, 2013
“Aspartame Consumption for 12 Weeks Does Not Affect Glycemia, Appetite, or Body Weight of Healthy, Lean Adults in a Randomized Controlled Trial” J Nutr 148:650, 2018
Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Dallas. She serves as a nutrition communications consultant to a variety of food and nutrition organizations, including the Calorie Control Council. She is passionate about promoting fact-based food and nutrition information to help people enjoy nutritious eating. Follow her on Twitter @NevaRDLD and check out her blog at www.NevaCochranRD.com.