Low calorie sweeteners can help prevent a major health epidemic

Posted: 02 April 2014

It’s time to tackle public misconceptions about low calorie sweeteners before the health consequences of obesity become even worse, Professor Anne Raben, from the Unit for Obesity Research at Copenhagen University, told an international meeting of health professionals yesterday (02-04-14).

“If the current trend for increasing obesity and weight gain continues by 2020 half the population of the US will either have diabetes or be in a pre-diabetic state,” warned Prof Raben, a key note speaker at the International Sweeteners Association conference in Brussels.

Europe is not doing much better. “Currently 31million people in the EU need treatment for diabetes, and if they continue to follow the US where increasing obesity is matched by increasing cases type 2 diabetes (T2D) the situation can only get worse”, said Prof Raben.

“The most serious consequence of diabetes is a three to four times increased risk of cardiovascular disease. By 2050 33% of the EU population could have T2D.” Preventing that happening is essential, said Prof Raben, which is why it is now essential to quash the myths about low calorie sweeteners.

“There is a belief that low calorie sweeteners will make you fat by increasing your appetite for sweet foods.” But the belief that people will overcompensate for the calories they save when using low calorie sweeteners is unfounded.

“There are no scientific studies to support the early studies from the 1980s that suggested this might be the case. “No studies in the last 25 to 30 years have confirmed this,” said Prof Raben.

Neither have hypotheses that low calorie sweeteners provoke hunger and cause overeating, or that they do not satisfy the appetite leading to compensatory eating at the next meals, been proved. “These mechanisms were considered again in studies in 2009 and 2012 but rejected,” said Professor Raben.

Prof Raben’s studies have shown that the opposite is true – users of low calorie sweeteners show no weight gain over time. In a ‘gold standard’ randomised controlled trial participants randomly given beverages sweetened with containing low calorie sweeteners for a 10 week period either, stayed the same weight, or showed slight weight loss.

“The finding surprised us as they were the opposite of what theorists who criticise low calorie drinks surmise,” said Prof Raben.

More recent studies have had the same effect. A study published in the prestigious medical peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine in 2012 showed that nearly 700 children aged five to 12 did not gain weight during 18 months of drinking low calorie sweetened beverages.

“Even stronger evidence for the efficacy of low calorie sweetened drinks was demonstrated in a meta-analysis of trials comparing adults who consumed both foods and drinks containing low calorie sweeteners,” said Prof Raben. When all the results were pooled and analysed users of low calorie sweeteners did not gain weight.

“As we have seen, with increases in weight comes increased risk of T2D, obesity and coronary heart disease,” warned Prof Raben.

“If we disregard the science that shows that low calorie sweeteners are an important tool in controlling obesity and T2D, we miss an important tool in weight control and obesity regulation.” she concluded.

Janette Marshall, Nutrition and Health Journalist