You may be reaching for artificial sweeteners thinking they’re better for you because they have zero calories in drinks, candies and other processed goods.
But new Canadian research published Monday suggests that artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and stevia, may be doing more harm than good.
Scientists out of the University of Manitoba are warning that they may be tied to long-term weight gain, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
“Caution is warranted until the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners are fully characterized,” Azad said.
READ MORE: Is diet soda adding to your belly fat?
For her research, Azad and her team conducted a systematic review — they zeroed in on 37 studies that followed over 400,000 people for an average of 10 years. (Keep in mind, only seven of these studies were randomized control trials — the gold standard in clinical research.)
Turns out, Azad picked up on patterns. Across the board in the studies, those who consumed more artificial sweeteners faced a “slight” increased risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions from excess body fat around the waist, increased blood pressure to abnormal cholesterol.
They had “relatively higher” risks of weight gain, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease from heart attacks to strokes.
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Diabetes cropped up in most of the studies, too. Azad suggests there is a 14 per cent increased risk of the chronic condition in people who consume artificial sweeteners on a daily basis compared to those who don’t at all.
There’s a growing body of literature on the potential risks of artificial sweeteners in zero calories drinks, to low-calorie candies and even in pasta sauces and other processed fare.
Azad’s study didn’t look into what it is about artificial sweeteners that could be triggering increased risk of so many issues, it simply points to a link.
But Azad said a few mechanisms could be at play:
It’s been said time and time again: dieters turn to diet soda or other sugar-free products but end up compensating for zero-calorie drinks by eating more. It could be by justifying a second helping of dinner because they saved the 165 calories they would have got from a can of Coke.
“People consume artificial sweeteners and diet beverages and think they can eat cake. They’re shifting calories to other foods,” Azad explained.
Other studies have pointed to a biological mechanism — our bodies respond to the taste of sugar, but are confused because there are no calories to go along with it. This could be tampering with metabolism and predisposes you to weight gain.
Finally, your gut microbiome — a collection of hundreds of types of bacteria — is altered by artificial sweeteners.
“Different bacteria are selected and that change may influence how much weight you gain on a long-term basis,” Azad said.
READ MORE: Why diet soda may be making you eat more
Handfuls of studies have pointed to artificial sweeteners’ link to diabetes, weight gain and even cancer.
Last year, a University of Texas study suggested that diet soda, for example, added 0.8 inches to occasional diet soda drinkers, and 3.16 inches to daily drinkers. That’s even after scientists adjusted for other factors, including smoking and exercise.
Consumption of diet soda has skyrocketed over the past few decades. In 1965, only three per cent of people were drinking diet soda. By 2013, it’s about 20 per cent. People who drink diet soda typically have higher body mass index and graze on more snacks.
Other research has even pointed to artificial sweeteners disrupting the brain’s sensors and feelings of satisfaction.
The makers of Splenda say that the findings “do not align with conclusions of high-quality systematic reviews and meta-analysis that show low calorie sweeteners, including sucralose, are safe and beneficial for weight management.”
“The collective body of evidence reviewed around the world and supported by medical and health associations continues to confirm the benefits of using sucralose as part of a healthy diet,” Dr. V Lee Grotz, director of global medical and safety science at Splenda, said in a statement sent to Global News.
Read Azad’s full findings published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.