There are usually 2 reasons why someone would choose a sweetener over sugar. Firstly, the concern that sugar is not a healthy food, some view it as a poisonous and addictive substance. We cover this in some detail in our previous blog “Is sugar actually bad for me?” which you can read by clicking here.
But the main point is that sugar is neither poisonous nor addictive. As long as you have it in smart doses then it’s not problematic (1). The major problem is overconsumption of sugar. It may be easier to go to town with sugar, but by itself, it is not an evil food - despite its current bad image.
The second reason is weight loss. A lot of you guys are extremely aware of the importance of calories in weight loss hence why some might choose supplements, like sweeteners, rather than the actual sugar. So, by doing this a lot of you may think it’s a win-win situation by still having the sweet satisfaction with a substitute but not actually having the calories of sugar.
It seems to make a lot of sense. But, what does good research actually say about artificial sweeteners?
The weird truth is that artificial sweeteners are linked with increased appetite! There is a rule in science; that correlation does not automatically equal to causation. For those of us who don’t get that, it basically means that they cannot prove yet that sweeteners CAUSE increased appetite but for some reason people who have a lot of artificial sweeteners seem to eat more food overall (2,3). And this was known about way back in the 80’s.
So, what does artificial sweeteners do to the body? Well, some scholars have tried to figure this out. But there has been suggestions that the sweet taste coming from the sweeteners actually “tricks” the body in some way. Because there aren’t any calories going to the body from that sweet taste the body actually desires more sweet things to make up for that calories intake. It’s like one of those moments where you fancy something but not sure what it is, so you eat absolutely everything and hope you find it – kind of.
Because of the sweet taste and then the unexpected lack of calorie intake it almost disturbs the body and may create havoc on the bodies appetite control (8).
One researcher who tried to recently discover why our bodies do this is Dr Wang. He did experiments with fruit flies and mice. You obviously can’t link his data directly onto humans because we are different in many ways. But our hormonal trails and responses are similar to fruit flies and mice.
So, Wang found some very interesting results. The flies were fed a sucralose-sweetened diet for 5 days. This caused an increase in food intake that returned to normal only after removing sucralose from the diet. For those who aren’t sure, sucralose is another way of saying artificial sweetener. So, the sucralose actually increased the sensitivity of these flies to the sweet taste. The researchers used L-glucose, another non-caloric agent that tastes sweet to see whether it had the same effect as sucralose. And it was confirmed that L-glucose had the same effect as sucralose which means that the sweet taste in it was leading to increased food consumption. The sucralose-fed mice were hyperactive and had fragmented sleep, which are the same effects that have been reported in humans when taking the same sweetener. (9)
So, now we know that sucralose increases appetite in the flies. There’s still a key question; was the effect of sucralose on the flies due to the sweet taste or due to an imbalance between the sweet taste and the actual energy content from the food?
To answer this question, there have been experiments comparing sucralose with regular table sugar. While sucralose increased the food intake, table sugar (which also tasted sweet to the flies but contained calories) decreased food intake. This basically suggested that sucralose increased food intake by creating an imbalance between sweetness and calorie content.
So, Wang seemed to show that an imbalance between the sweet taste and the calorie content seemed to trigger an increase in appetite. Whilst this experiment matches what was previously seen in the relationship between over-eating in humans taking sweeteners, it is still a very difficult thing to prove in humans. Plus, it doesn’t help when the trials on humans have shown mixed results so far (10). So this seems to suggest that certain people may be more affected than others to the potential appetite effects of sweeteners. But, the proof that they are ‘better’ or worse for you, so far, it’s still questionable.
So are sweeteners better than sugar? I think it’s hard to argue at this point in time that they are. But there certainly isn’t no quick fix solution for weight loss. Just keep yourselves updated with our Myth Buster blogs to find out the latest experiments.
Slow and steady wins the race. We are a big believer in this. As long as you LOVE what exercise you're doing the easier the weight loss will be. If you don't know what it is you love yet, we have a hundreds of workouts that you can try and see what you enjoy the most. Click here for our most flexible plan that gives you 1000+ workouts; Fitness, Food & Mindset.
Blundell JE, Hill AJ Paradoxical effects of an intense sweetener (aspartame) on appetite. Lancet. (1986)
Rogers PJ, Blundell JE Separating the actions of sweetness and calories: effects of saccharin and carbohydrates on hunger and food intake in human subjects. Physiol Behav. (1986)
Duffey KJ, et alDietary patterns matter: diet beverages and cardiometabolic risks in the longitudinal Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study . Am J Clin Nutr. (2012)
Dhingra R, et alSoft drink consumption and risk of developing cardiometabolic risk factors and the metabolic syndrome in middle-aged adults in the community . Circulation. (2007)
Lutsey PL, Steffen LM, Stevens J Dietary intake and the development of the metabolic syndrome: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study. Circulation. (2008)
Nettleton JA, et alDietary patterns and incident cardiovascular disease in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis . Am J Clin Nutr. (2009)
Swithers SE Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends Endocrinol Metab. (2013)
de Ruyter JC, et alA trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children . N Engl J Med. (2012)