Beware! Artificial sweeteners may be linked to long-term weight gain and thereby increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, warns a study.
A sugar substitute is a food additive that provides a sweet taste like that of sugar while containing significantly less food energy. Some sugar substitutes are produced by nature and others produced synthetically. Those that are not produced by nature are, in general, called artificial sweeteners.
Consumption of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and stevia, may have negative effects on metabolism, gut bacteria and appetite, although the evidence is conflicting.
Researchers from the University of Manitoba from Canada analysed over 4,00 000 people for an average of 10 years.
Only seven of these studies were randomised controlled trials (the gold standard in clinical research), involving 1,003 people followed for six months on average.
The trials did not show a consistent effect of artificial sweeteners on weight loss, and the longer observational studies showed a link between consumption of artificial sweeteners and relatively higher risks of weight gain and obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other health issues.
Study author Dr. Ryan Zarychanski said that despite of the fact that millions of individuals routinely consume artificial sweeteners, relatively few patients have been included in clinical trials of these products.
"We found that data from clinical trials do not clearly support the intended benefits of artificial sweeteners for weight management," Zarychanski added.
Lead author Dr. Meghan Azad also said that caution is warranted until the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners are fully characterised.
The team also found that artificial sweetener consumption by pregnant women may influence weight gain, metabolism and gut bacteria in their infants.
"Given the widespread and increasing use of artificial sweeteners, and the current epidemic of obesity and related diseases, more research is needed to determine the long-term risks and benefits of these products," said Azad.
The study appears in Canadian Medical Association Journal.