For years the American Heart Association has warned us that we eat too much sugar. As the use of artificial sweeteners rises, whether products such as Sweet n’ Low or Splenda are safe or effective has been a subject of debate in the medical community. But this week the AMA, as well as the American Diabetes Association has cautiously endorsed the use of artificial sweeteners.
Smart use is the key
“Smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help you reduce added sugars in your diet, therefore lowering the number of calories you eat,” said Christopher Gardner of Stanford University in a press release issued by the AMA and ADA. Reducing added sugars “could help you attain and maintain a healthy body weight, and thereby lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.”
“Smart” use of artificial sweeteners is the key. Too often people cancel out the benefits by consuming added sugars and extra calories from other foods and beverages.
The rise of fake sugars
The use of artificial, or “non-nutritive” sweeteners has been increasing rapidly. Only 3 percent of Americans used them in 1965. By 2004, 15 percent regularly used fake sugars. But the increase in consumption of sweeteners has not been offset by a reduction in consumption of added sugars. That same year, according to the AHA, the average American ate about 22 teaspoons—355 calories worth—of added sugars a day.
As rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease got out of hand, the AHA recommended a drastic reduction in added sugars to no more than 100 calories a day for women (6 teaspoons) and 150 calories a day for men (9 teaspoons). But perhaps recognizing that America’s sweet tooth won’t go away quietly, the association asked a panel of experts to evaluate whether artificial sweeteners could actually help control weight and diabetes.
The scoop on fake sugar
The panel analyzed data from studies on artificial sweeteners branded as aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, and stevia. According to Gardner, more than 6,000 products using these sweeteners were introduced from 1999 to 2004. The data was inconclusive that the sweeteners affected weight loss, total calorie intake or carbohydrate intake. But they did find some anecdotal evidence that the products can help diabetics manage their sugar intake.
In several studies, artificial sweeteners were associated with undesirable outcomes, such as obesity, due to “reverse causation” – those using the sweeteners did so because they already were overweight. Plus, a common tendency among people who use artificial sweeteners is to cancel out the benefits by satisfying sugar cravings with other foods.
Healthy diet wins again
Ultimately, the statement from the associations said artificial sweeteners are not “magic bullets.”
“If people are counting on this as the way to control calories and sugar, this isn’t it,” Gardner said. “The bigger impact has to be from an overall healthy diet. You’re never going to turn a junk food into a health food just because you eliminated the sugar content. You never find non-nutritive sweeteners in carrots, broccoli or kidney beans, all the things we tell people to eat.”