We are all familiar with the effects of excessive amounts of refined sugar. This has encouraged a move towards artificial sweeteners, where advertising can now include the word ‘Diet’ or ‘Zero Cal’ on its enticing labels. When it comes to food, the word ‘artificial’ should probably be a warning in itself. What about more natural-based sweeteners such as Stevia?
A recent study used a 6 month Randomised Controlled Trial to show that when it comes to fighting flab, artificial sweeteners are neutral – they don’t result in weight loss or gain. This is generally the case with independent studies, however those sponsored by artificial sweetener companies, unsurprisingly tend to show weight-loss as the outcome.
Studies in the format of Randomised Controlled Trials are considered brilliant for accuracy but are costly to run, so subjects are usually only followed up for a period of months. Observational studies aren’t considered to be as accurate as RCTs but they do allow for longer follow up periods, which can be enlightening, as people don’t just guzzle Diet Coke for a couple months, it tends to be a lifetime habit.
The results of the 10 year observational studies (same link as above) for artificial sweeteners were used for comparison and paint a very different picture. Not only were they linked to weight gain over time, there was also a 30% increased risk of diabetes, 13% increased risk of high blood pressure and 32% increased risk of heart disease. Even the ‘healthy’ stevia didn’t fare any better in these studies…
So the question is whether to believe the smaller, more accurate 6 month studies or the longer, less accurate 10 year studies. The jury is still out, as current science just isn’t in a position to concretely prove the long-term effects of such chemicals. While artificial sweeteners could still be better for you than sugar, it doesn’t make them health foods.
Scientists have been studying artificial sweeteners for over 140 years but every year researchers seem to discover something new. What is known, is that these substances may have a similar effect on our metabolism and gut flora as high fructose corn syrup. Most artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than natural sugars, when we expose our bodies to such extremes wouldn’t it be logical to suspect extreme reactions?
Although stevia is considered a ‘natural’ alternative because it’s derived from a plant leaf instead of being constructed from scratch in a lab, it is still processed and refined. When seeking to sweeten your morning porridge – a safer bet would be to use truly naturally occurring sugars such as fresh fruits, or at least syrups lower in fructose such as a modest dollop of rice malt syrup.