You may have read an interesting news story that must have industrial bakeries and mammoth food and beverage companies quaking in their boots. Here are a few headlines that say it all:
- “Just Desserts: Artificial Sweeteners Linked to Weight Gain” (Scientific American)
- “Rats! Artificial Sweeteners Lead to Weight Gain” (Wall Street Journal)
- “Fake Sugar Can Make You Fat” (Wired News)
You can tell that some of the headline writers were having fun with their titles. This is how writer Lisa Stein began her story on the Scientific American web site: “You know those no-guilt diet drinks you chug by the gallon, and the fake sugar you dump in your coffee to stay trim? Bad news: a new study suggests that artificial sweeteners may actually make it harder to control your weight.”
How unfortunate that untold millions of Americans and hundreds of millions around the world have been duped into believing they can snack on “diet foods” laced with artificial sweeteners or pour pink packets into their coffee and not gain weight. Turns out the opposite is true, if a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and by Purdue University is correct.
Here’s the skinny: an issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, which released results of the NIH study, suggests that artificial sweeteners may lead to weight gain, at least in rats. In the study performed at Purdue University in Indiana, nine rats fed yogurt sweetened with saccharin were 20 percent heavier than 10 rats that ate yogurt sweetened with glucose, which is close to composition to table sugar. After receiving their yogurt snack, the animals were given their regular rat chow. At the end of five weeks, rats that had been fed sugar-free yogurt gained an average of 88 grams, compared to 72 grams for rats that received glucose-sweetened yogurt, a difference of 20 percent.
The two groups of rats also received drinks sweetened with saccharin or glucose. The rats were then measured for changes in their body temperatures. The rats in the saccharin group experienced a smaller average temperature increase, a sign that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners had blunted their body’s response to sweet foods.
Study author Susan Swithers said that when the body tastes something sweet, a signal is sent to the body’s digestive system to get ready to process caloric food. But when the calories don’t arrive because the sweetness was artificial, the body responds by not cranking up the metabolic furnace. Over time, that adjustment makes it harder to burn calories and shed weight.
Here’s my take: To the body, sweet tastes represent quick energy. That’s why you see tennis players at the U.S. Open peeling a banana during changeovers; they need the quick energy from bananas and other sweet fruits. When artificial non-caloric sweeteners are consumed, the sweet taste but not the calories are there, and the body receives mixed signals.
In addition, since the body expects calories with sweet taste, the body craves other foods to get those calories. Another point that captured my attention was the fact that the number of Americans who consume soda, yogurt, snack cakes, and other sugar-free treats containing artificial sweeteners more than doubled to 160 million in 2000 from 70 million in 1987, according to the report. I don’t think it’s any coincidence at all that the incidence of obesity among U.S. adults doubled as well from 15 percent to 30 percent of the population.
I’m not a Johnny-come-lately to the topic of artificial sweeteners. I’ve pointed how unhealthy—actually, I’ve written that they’re toxic and dangerous—in nearly all my books. In my book, Perfect Weight America, I had this to say:
“If you have always thought that artificial sweeteners will help you lose weight, you might want to rethink your position. Researchers at Purdue University say these sugar substitutes could interfere with the body’s natural ability to count calories based on a food’s sweetness. In other words, drinking a diet soft drink instead of the full-octane sugar version will reduce your caloric intake, but it could also trick the body into thinking that other sweet items don’t have as many calories either. This sort of thinking gives weight-conscious people another mental alibi for overindulging in sweet foods and beverages.”
Diet and “lite” beverages featuring industrial nonnutritive chemical sweeteners have been touted as the answer to America’s obesity epidemic for decades. Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener to market, and the compound is up to 700 times sweeter than table sugar. Since its introduction in the 1960s, though, saccharin has created a string of never-ending debates and fights over its safety.
Probably because of its slight metallic aftertaste, saccharin has been supplanted in popularity by aspartame which has equally evoked controversies over its safety. Aspartame’s breakdown products—methanol and formic acid—are known toxins in high concentrations. Aspartame and another popular sweetener, acesulfame K, are up to 200 times sweeter than table sugar.
Sucralose came out in 1998 and immediately made a splash by attempting to distance itself from the chemical aftertaste of popular artificial sweeteners. Clearly, its marketing strategy was designed to wrap the sweetener in the cloak of being “natural,” which is what the manufacturers of artificial sweeteners want you to believe.
They also want you to believe that you won’t gain weight when you open one of those blue, pink or yellow packets of artificial sweeteners, but I think we can put that claim to rest once and for all.