‘No Evidence’ Sugar Substitutes Have Health Benefits, Says Review

A wide-scale review has found no evidence of health benefits from artificial sweeteners and that we need more research into non-sugar sweeteners and our health.

Artificial sweeteners have become the darling of the “diet” drink and food industry. The industry trades on the science of replacing sugar for low calorie or zero calorie alternatives, particularly in the fight against obesity.

There’s just one sour problem: as a new study shows, the science to support artificial sweeteners as a meaningful alternative to sugar in the battle of the bulge is surprisingly thin.

The research appears this month in the science journal “The BMJ“. The research group Cochrane, whose aim is to provide independent evaluations of scientific research, took a pool of 56 studies on non-sugar sweetener (NSS) use among healthy adults and children and looked at the results. These studies all compared NSS use in some adults to those who didn’t use artificial sweeteners. It’s worth highlighting that the studies in this analysis weren’t particularly focusing on obese patients, and we’ll come back to that later.

The team of European analysts were aiming to answer key questions currently posed by the World Health Organization which, seeing the use of artificial sweeteners on the rise as big industries look to avoid sugar taxes, is currently creating an overarching policy on NSS.

The researchers looked at data on weight, blood sugar and blood sugar control, cancer incidence, and mood and behavior among several other indicators of biological response. They were also looking at the quality of the research, so they could see how reliable those findings were.

What did the researchers find?

It was what the research didn’t find that was perhaps the most interesting. Despite the now-ubiquitous nature of NSS in our products and claims that they support a healthy lifestyle, the researchers found that most health outcomes were not meaningfully changed when people used NSS.

There were some minor positive changes for some groups. A small number of studies demonstrated that BMI and fasting blood glucose levels improved among adults who used NSS when compared to those who did not. Conversely, those who used more NSS than others appeared to gain slightly more weight than their counterparts, suggesting that NSS use alone cannot control our weight, which is not surprising. However, in both these cases the certainty of the evidence was unfortunately low, meaning that we cannot safely draw conclusions from those studies.

In children, the researchers did see a pattern in the data that hints children and adolescents may benefit from using NSS over sugar in terms of keeping their BMI lower. Again, though, intake of NSS did not actually change their bodyweight.

Perhaps most surprising of all was that there was no good quality evidence that NSS use actually helps overweight or obese people who were actively trying to control their weight. This is important, because this is where the food and drink industry has really hinged its health claims: that NSS can help support weight loss and weight management.

There was an upside to this review though. For years now there have been fears that NSS, in particular aspartame, may raise the risk of cancers and other serious health complaints. As is often the case, these fears stem from animal trials and limited human research studies whose results have since been shown to largely disappear once replicated among bigger groups of people.

This latest review confirmed that, while using NSS did not appear to improve people’s health, it did not adversely affect their health either, with no meaningful change in things like cancer rates. However, as with the rest of this study, the researchers had their reservations about the quality of data currently available and called for more wide scale and better designed studies to truly understand the potential health impact of NSS, something that becomes more important as NSS take the place of sugar in many of our everyday products.

What should we take from this research?

To be clear, this research does not show that NSS are worthless, and there have been some complaints that the analysis left out a couple of major randomized trials showing that, among children and adolescents, there may be some benefits to NSS over sugar as they look to control their weight and fight obesity.

However, despite these complaints there has emerged a clear and somewhat refreshing consensus in the responses. The researchers in this analysis are right: there needs to be more and better-quality research into NSS use to fully understand its benefits, if there are any, and its potential risks, if they exist.

Vasanti Malik, from the US Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, says in a companion article to this research that the “weight of evidence” seems to support some benefits to NSS when used as a replacement for, say, sugar-sweetened beverages among heavy users of sweetened drinks. Malik also notes, however, “Toews and colleagues’ findings highlight the need for larger and longer term studies of NSS to guide policy development and elucidate underlying biological mechanisms.”

It’s time for the food and beverage industry to put its money where its mouth is and support long term, wide scale studies into NSS, so the public can have confidence when picking artificially-sweetened products.

Photo credit: Getty Images.


Emma L
Emma L2 months ago

Thank you for posting

Gino C
Past Member 2 months ago

thanks for sharing

Loredana V
Loredana V2 months ago

I prefer sugar to substitutes. Thank you.

Chad A
Chad A2 months ago

Thank you.

Marija M
Marija M2 months ago

I believe they are right.

Irene S
Irene S2 months ago

I try to avoid artificial sweeteners and flavors.

Julie W
Julie W2 months ago

I never expected my use of Stevia to be an actual health benefit, just a way of cutting down on sugar. The heading is rather confusing.
And for diabetics like Wesley, of course there will be a benefit.

Alea C
Alea C2 months ago

I don't think people ever thought NSS products had health benefits, they use them mainly to lose weight, which of course doesn't work.

Anne M
Anne M2 months ago

Rather use real sugar,, I don't drink coffee anyways,, maybe once or twice a year, gotta be decaf,, so real sugar won't do much harm to me, weight-wise...

William H
William Hassig2 months ago

I can't have stevia or agave because they make me sick as a dog.