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Sweetening the deal for artificial sweeteners

Are artificial sweeteners good for us or not? An EU initiative is seeking decisive answers.

Health

Despite the widespread popularity of artificial sweeteners, there’s a great deal of controversy regarding their benefits and risks. Supporters tout them as a wonderful low-calorie alternative to sugar and a useful aid in weight loss. Their low impact on blood sugar levels is also considered to be an invaluable tool in the management of diabetes. On the other hand, studies have linked some artificial sweeteners to certain types of cancer, heart disease and other health issues. They have also been said to be toxic to the body, heighten sugar cravings and lead to overeating. This is only expected to get more confusing as additional sweeteners are discovered. We need a clearer picture of the risks and benefits of using sweeteners as sugar substitutes and how healthy, safe and sustainable their use is. Spurred by this idea, a consortium of 29 partners from 10 European countries launched the EU-funded project SWEET. The seeds for the new project were sown by an initial survey of people’s views on products made using low-calorie sweeteners. Benefits to frequent consumers The survey revealed the diverging opinions between the pro- and anti-sweetener camps. While people who don’t consume artificial sweeteners predictably consider them to be unpalatable, frequent users think they are pleasant-tasting. Low-calorie sweeteners also seem to play an important role for people who are trying to lose weight. “Frequent consumers believe low-calorie sweeteners help them to control their appetites,” says lead researcher Dr Charlotte Hardman of Liverpool University in an article posted on the ‘FoodNavigator’ website. “It suggests these products are satisfying two competing goals. With diets, it can often feel like a compromise. People who frequently consume low-calorie sweeteners believe it helps them fulfil their diet goals while also being nice and pleasurable. That is really important because pleasure is a big driver of food and drink consumption.” The researchers’ study also found evidence to support the view that low-calorie sweetened beverages help to control cravings. When such beverages aren’t available, calorie intake increases. Is their bad reputation deserved? Their poor taste is not the only reason given by the anti-sweetener supporters for staying away from artificial sugar substitutes. Their critics also cite health risks as a reason for avoiding them. Yet, despite the general scepticism that exists, Dr Hardman doesn’t believe that there is any convincing evidence to support these negative views. “The headlines can be very misleading…” she notes. “There is a perception that is very negative and isn’t in keeping with the scientific evidence…” Over the next five years, SWEET (Sweeteners and sweetness enhancers: Impact on health, obesity, safety and sustainability) will be examining the risks and benefits of sweetener consumption. In addition, the project will be identifying and addressing the barriers and facilitators that exist for the use of sweeteners and sweetness enhancers. For more information, please see: CORDIS web page

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