Artificial sweeteners such as saccharine and aspartame could sabotage diet efforts. Dieters have long used artificial sweeteners to enjoy sweet treats, believing lower calorie alternatives were providing a way to enjoy foods and beverages that would otherwise be too fattening. Now, new studies by Purdue University revealed that artificial sweeteners may distort the body’s natural calorie counter, fooling the body and sabotaging weight-loss efforts.
Americans consuming artificially sweetened products has increased from under 70 million in 1987 to over 160 million in 2000, while consumption of regular soft drinks increased over 15 gallons per capita annually. More people are consuming foods sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin, but are not slimming down; people are becoming overweight, obese even. This fattening of consumers is what prompted researchers to test the body’s sensory clues in predicting a food or drink’s calorie content.
The Purdue study found artificial sweeteners may disrupt the body’s natural ability to count calories based on foods’ sweetness. According to researcher Susan Swithers, PhD, associate professor of psychological sciences at Purdue, in the past, sweetness provided valuable clues about calories; something sweet was probably a good energy source. “Before things like artificial sweeteners, these relationships would be very reliable,” says Swithers. “Animals needed to find good sources of calories and needed to know whether eating something provided them with lots of calories.” “It’s only been relatively recently that foods have been introduced that violate those kind of relationships, such as something very sweet that has no calories,” Swithers says. “Incidence of overweight and obesity has also increased markedly during this period,” she said. “When you substitute artificial sweetener for real sugar, however, the body learns it can no longer use its sense of taste to gauge calories. So, the body may be fooled into thinking a product sweetened with sugar has no calories and, therefore, people overeat.”
In one study, two groups of rats were fed—in addition to their regular diet—two different sweetened drinks. In one group, both liquids were sweetened with natural high-calorie sweeteners providing a consistent relationship between sweet taste and calories. In the other, one of the flavored liquids was artificially sweetened with non-caloric saccharin so that the relationship between sweet taste and calories was inconsistent. After 10 days, they were offered a high-calorie, chocolate-flavored snack. Rats fed the mixed liquids ate more of their regular food after the sweet snack than those fed only sugar-sweetened liquids. Researchers say the results show drinking artificially sweetened, low-calorie liquids damaged the rats’ natural ability to compensate for the snack’s calories.
Health psychologist Daniel C. Stettner, PhD, says damaging the body’s natural ability to count calories based on food’s sweetness is one way in which food can be manipulated to change eating habits and contribute to obesity. “We do more to manipulate food than just add artificial sweeteners. The food industry plays with the sugar, the fat, and the salt,” says Stettner, who specializes in weight issues at Northpointe Health Center in Berkley, Michigan.
Additional research will be needed to evaluate if the body and brain can be retrained to naturally measure calories after consuming artificial sweeteners or high-calorie beverages.