It seems logical that replacing sugar with a non-caloric substitute would lead to reduced weight. But science and logic don’t always agree. Case in point: A newly released joint scientific statement on the topic from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Non-nutritive Sweeteners: Current Use and Health Perspectives reveals that there is inconclusive evidence to prove that displacing caloric sweeteners with non-nutritive sweeteners “benefits appetite, energy balance, body weight, or cardiometabolic risk factors.”
Previous research has repeatedly linked added sugar in the diet to obesity, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And in 2009, the AHA recommended that Americans significantly reduce their intake of added sugars, suggesting that women limit added sugar calories to 100 per day, and men to 150 per day. That equates to about eight ounces of soda or less than half of an average candy bar.
With that in mind, and fueled by the desire to lose weight, many have turned to non-nutritive sweeteners.
Non-nutritive sweeteners (also referred to as very low-calorie sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, noncaloric sweeteners and intense sweeteners), by definition have a higher intensity of sweetness by weight than caloric sweeteners (such as sucrose, corn syrups and fruit juice concentrates). To reduce calorie levels, they are added in small quantities and provide zero or minimal calories. In the current food supply, non-nutritive sweeteners are commonly used in everything from beverages and yogurts, to desserts and gum.
The AHA/ADA analysis examined the artificial non-nutritive sweeteners aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), sucralose (Splenda), Neotame, and one natural product, stevia (Truvia, PureVia, Sweet Leaf). The research was not examining the safety of sweeteners, and hence selected sweeteners that are generally regarded as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Although the statement cautiously suggests that the use of non-nutritive sweeteners can be a tool for reducing calories and maintaining a healthy weight, determining the benefits of non-nutritive sweeteners is a complex issue. Says Christopher Gardner, one of the authors of the report, “if you choose a beverage sweetened with non-nutritive sweetener, replacing the 150 calories of a sugar sweetened drink, and then indulge in a 300-calorie cookie later in the day, you’re going to end up eating more calories than you subtracted.”
Gardner also notes that non-nutritive beverage and food products are different: People don’t compensate the same way for non-nutritive sweetened beverages as they do with food containing non-nutritive sweeteners.
“Here is the twist — when people eat foods with non-nutritive sweeteners, people tend to compensate more by eating more calories … it seems to be physiological,” he explained.
One of the most important takeaways from the study, Gardner suggests, is that the best way for limiting added sugar is to follow the American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines. Eat healthy, and indulge not in diet sodas, but in a diet rich in "vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish, low-fat or non-fat dairy and lean meats without skin."