How can low calorie sweeteners help dieters?

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Science news from the Sugar Reduction Summit, London

Committed to our objective to bring to visitors of the ISA website the latest science on low calorie sweeteners, and to provide evidence-based information on their use in the diet, we share in this article the latest science news presented at the recent Sugar Reduction Summit, which took place in London on 9th November.


  • Low calorie sweeteners may help dieters to align conflicting goals: the enjoyment of good-tasting food and weight control
  • Based on the “sensory-specific satiety” theory, the consumption of a sweet food (with or without calories) may satiate the desire for sweetness and reduce the consumption of more sweet-tasting foods
  • No evidence that any approved low calorie sweetener would affect the gut microbiota in humans and lead to weight gain
  • Challenges in research and media interpretation of the data affect science communication

More on use of low calorie sweeteners by dieters

One of the topics of interest at the Summit was if and how low calorie sweeteners can help dieters in their efforts to lose weight. As presented earlier this year at the European Congress on Obesity, in May 2017, in Porto, Portugal, based on preliminary findings of an ongoing study, frequent consumers of low calorie sweetened beverages consumed fewer calories when exposed to sweet foods such as chocolate at a craving stage compared to the non-consumers who participated in the study. Based on this outcome as well as previous study findings1, it is believed that frequent consumers are using low calorie sweetened drinks as a means to combat sweet food cravings and to successfully reduce calorie intake when in a state of craving.

Further to what she presented in May, at the Sugar Reduction Summit Dr Charlotte Hardman, University of Liverpool, UK, moved one step further, providing more information about the “psychology of dieting” and about how low calorie sweeteners may help dieters. Indeed, chronic dieters juggle two conflicting goals: the enjoyment of good-tasting food and their continuous effort to control their body weight. Low calorie sweetened drinks’ intake may help dieters to align these potentially conflicting goals, i.e. hedonic eating and weight control, as based on the study outcomes, frequent consumers associated low calorie sweetened beverages with pleasure and with positive role in weight regulation.

Furthermore, and when it comes to sweet taste, Prof Katherine Appleton, University of Bournemouth, UK, outlined in her talk that a “sensory-specific satiety”2, meaning that the consumption of a sweet food (with or without calories) may satiate the desire and reduce the consumption of more sweet-tasting foods, was described in the literature already in the early 90s. In simple words, this means that when we eat for example a dessert, at some point we feel already pleased/ satiated and we don’t want to continue eating more of it or of another sweet-tasting food. On this occasion, if the chosen food/ drink is sweetened with low calorie sweeteners, it means that we can meet and satiate our desire for sweetness with a choice that provides fewer calories and less sugar and further reduce the consumption of more sweet-tasting foods, and of course this is especially important to people wishing to lose or manage their weight.

But how do the media “translate” the science?

With over 1,000 published weight loss diets, and more appearing every day in the media, and with millions of Google search outcomes around dieting, getting lost in the translation of the available information is only natural. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that consumers’ beliefs about the role of low calorie sweeteners in weight control are different and polarised, as noted by Dr Hardman. On this front, media interpretation of the science is frequently problematic and unhelpful, as emphasised by Dr Caomhan Logue, Ulster University, Northern Ireland, UK, in his talk at the Summit entitled ‘An overview of recent science and evidence on low calorie sweeteners and their translation in the media’. Challenges in the research itself, such as limitations in intake assessment methods or unmeasured confounding factors in observational studies, as well as the misinterpretation of the data when translated into a media story, can jeopardise science communication and therefore lead to consumer confusion or misperception.

An unfortunate example of how media misreporting of the science or, even worse, reporting of questionable single-study findings without taking into consideration the totality of the evidence in a scientific area can influence perceptions takes us a few years back, in 2014, when a study published in Nature claiming that low calorie sweeteners could lead to glucose intolerance and thus weight gain raised huge media attention and led to sensational headlines3. However, most media failed to report that these claims were based on a study on mice using extremely high doses, hundred times exceeding the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), of one sweetener and on a human trial in 7 individuals with no control group and findings of glucose response in only four of them. The main limitations of this study, and importantly, an overview of the published literature was presented by Dr Alexandra Lobach, Intertek, in her talk about low calorie sweeteners and gut microbiome, concluding that the studies currently available provide no evidence that any approved low calorie sweetener affects the gut microbiota in humans at currently permitted human intake levels.

Take-away messages for dieters

Bottom line, the primary aim for all, including researchers, health professionals and dieters is to find which strategies can help different individuals to more effectively regulate their body weight. And it is not necessary that every single strategy will work for all, as different diets don’t fit all dieters. The best diet is the one each individual will follow and incorporate into their daily life for lifelong maintenance of a healthy body weight4, and within this context, every single dietary strategy, including the use of low calorie sweeteners, that can help towards a better compliance to diet and lifestyle changes and towards aligning conflicting dieters’ goals, meaning to maintain the palatability of the diet while managing body weight, is very important.

  1. Bellisle F. Intense Sweeteners, Appetite for the Sweet Taste, and Relationship to Weight Management. Curr Obes Rep 2015; 4(1): 106-110
  2. Rolls BJ. Sensory-specific satiety. Nutr Rev, 1986 Mar;44(3):93-101
  3. ISA refutes claims made in Suez et al. study. Available here.
  4. Matarese LE and Pories WJ. Adult weight loss diets: metabolic effects and outcomes. Nutr Clin Pract, 2014 Dec;29(6):759-67