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The bitter truth about artificial sweetener

Artificial sweeteners – are they good for us or bad for us? They’ve long been advertised as being better for our health than added sugars. The Dietitians Association of Australia takes the position that consumers can safely enjoy artificial sweeteners – known as non-nutritive sweeteners. They have a far lesser impact on blood sugar since they’re difficult for the human body to digest, and don’t react with oral bacteria in the way sugar does, meaning there’s a reduced risk of dental cavities and plaque.

Proponents of artificial sweeteners argue their reduced energy levels, thanks to the lower impact on blood sugar, means they can prevent weight gain. However, evidence from studies on this has been mixed – and conclusions indicate biased results on both sides.

But whether they do or don’t keep off the kilos could be the least of your worries. Cohort studies in an investigation into non-nutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health showed that our favourite diet beverages and artificially sweetened foods are associated with hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular events.

‘There is also emerging evidence artificial sweeteners may adversely impact the gut microbiota and glucose tolerance,’ writes Professor Sarah McNaughton of Deakin’s Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) in The Conversation. ‘But the existing studies in this area have mainly been conducted in animal models, so further work is required in human trials before recommendations can be made.’

She also notes that using artificial sweeteners in place of sugar doesn’t actually help people move away from their ‘innate’ preference for sweetness. The biggest change people need to make in terms of sugar intake is in their own behaviours – and satiating a sweet tooth, even using artificial sweeteners, isn’t the way to do it.

‘While there’s emerging evidence around some health issues, we definitely need more robust evidence, particularly in human studies, before ruling them out,’ Prof. McNaughton says.

So while researchers continue to investigate, it’s a good rule of thumb to keep your consumption of all types of sweeteners – including added sugar and artificial sweeteners – to a minimum. After a while you might not even crave the sweetness!

Are you interested in studying nutrition? Check out the range of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics courses available at Deakin.

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Prof. Sarah McNaughton
Prof. Sarah McNaughton

NHMRC Career Development Fellow, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

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