Contrary to popular belief, a new review suggests that sweeteners do not help you lose weight, nor do they have health benefits.
Non- caloric sweeteners, whether in their artificial or natural form, have been sold for the past few years as the "healthy alternative" to the terrible white poison, or more commonly known as sugar. However, the reality is that sweeteners do not help you lose weight, nor are they as good as we originally thought. Yes, it is true that they are safe, and that both the Foods & Drugs Administration (USA) and the European Food & Safety Authority (Europe) have classified them as such. But being safe is one thing, and being healthy or beneficial is another.
Now, a new review commissioned by the World Health Organization has concluded that sweeteners have no health benefits, or at least there is no convincing evidence for it. To reach this conclusion, they evaluated various health parameters such as body weight, body mass index, blood sugar levels, eating behavior and the fact of suffering from cardiovascular or metabolic diseases or some type of cancer. And the conclusions are, to say the least, disappointing for sweeteners.
Sweeteners do not help you lose weight, nor are they beneficial
Although the current review published in the British Medical Journal on January 2 is one of the most complete to date, and will in fact serve to revise the WHO guidelines on sweeteners, it does not appear that it will be the last word on it.
In the same review, the responsible researchers suggest that those papers that gave benefits to sweeteners lacked scientific rigor. As an example, they mention that many of these studies were very small, or were carried out for very short periods of time, thus suggesting that it would be necessary to expand both the size of the studies and the time devoted to them to draw firm conclusions.
Among the best-known sweeteners are aspartame, saccharin or sucralose in their artificial versions, standing out on the other hand stevia in its natural version. Since all of them are either calorie-free, or very low in calories, they are supposed to reduce the risk of obesity and cardiometabolic diseases. However, the evidence in this regard has been mixed, with studies linking the consumption of sweeteners with a lower risk of obesity and diabetes, but in contrast, other studies suggest just the opposite: that sweeteners do not help you lose weight, and They could even increase weight and the risk of obesity-related diseases.
To reach a clear conclusion in this regard, the researchers of the new review analyzed up to 56 studies carried out in humans where those individuals who consumed sweeteners were compared with others who did not. All of them included healthy adults and children, and only studies that specified which sweetener had been used were considered.
In most studies, individuals who consumed sweeteners had similar health parameters to individuals who did not consume them. Likewise, some small studies suggested improvements in body mass index and fasting blood glucose levels; however, the quality of this evidence was very low, according to the researchers. Among adults and children trying to lose weight, no benefit from sweeteners was detected (a maximum weight loss of 1.3 kg, somewhat insignificant). Or what is the same: sweeteners do not help you lose weight, nor do they seem to have any health benefits.
Yes, sweeteners are safe, but much remains to be investigated
On the other hand, the review did not detect any relationship between sweeteners and cancer, or any other adverse effect, something that has been detected in the case of the use of sugar. But on the other hand, the researchers suggest that the studies regarding the safety of these sweeteners were also of low quality, so further research would be necessary.
Likewise, regarding the way to carry out this review, there are some limitations to take into account. For example, Vasanti Malik, a researcher at the Harvard University School of Public Health, has written an editorial regarding this review (although she was not involved in it). In this letter, Malik denounces that some studies carried out in the medium-long term that do suggest that sweeteners can prevent weight gain have not been taken into account; However, these works were not included because they did not specify what kind of sweetener is compared (sweetened beverages were studied regarding sugary drinks, more generally).
On the other hand, the review did not specify what the use of sweeteners was compared with: it was not specified whether it was compared with the consumption of sugar or with the consumption of unsweetened or unsweetened beverages, something that could affect the results, according to Malik.
The potential dangers of sweeteners
While sweeteners may not help you lose weight, it should also be noted that they can be an intermediate step between sugary drinks and water consumption, as the American Heart Association recognized in a statement published in July 2018.
Even so, and despite being classified as safe, sweeteners can have a potential harmful to the human body that has nothing to do with weight or cardiometabolic diseases. For example, a recent study suggested that artificial sweeteners can harm the gut microbiome, even in small concentrations. In other words, sweeteners would be toxic to gut bacteria, even in small amounts.
For its part, some studies suggest that sweeteners can have a rebound effect, or halo effect: consuming sweeteners, "unintentionally", add more calories to the rest of the day, as suggested by a study published in Cell Metabolism. This behavior would obviously cause weight gain. Another review, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2017, after analyzing 11,000 studies on the matter, suggested that sweeteners would be the cause of diseases cardiometabolic, obesity, stroke and hypertension; However, a cause-and-effect could not be found as such, and the relationship could be inverse: that those individuals who seek to improve their health are those who later start consuming sweeteners to achieve it (and not that sweeteners cause all these effects).
Being healthy is really about being at a weight that is right for you. The best way to find out if you are at a healthy weight or if you need to lose or gain weight is to talk to a doctor or dietitian, who can compare your weight with healthy norms to help you set realistic goals.