Artificial sweeteners are either loved or reviled, but do they even do the job they’re expected to do?
Artificial sweeteners are a part of everyday life and can pop up throughout the day, from the first morning coffee to an after-dinner treat.
Obviously, they are designed to replace sugar, a leading cause of obesity, but are they doing a good job at keeping weight down?
Turns out, not so much, especially if you are obese already and especially for women.
A study published last year by the University of Southern California (USC), designed to test if sugar had a different effect on appetite than artificial sweeteners, particularly sucralose, revealed some startling results.
This study differed from previous work that largely involved people of normal weight or exclusively men. The USC study focused on people of both sexes and varying weights. It also combined blood tests, medical imaging and eating behaviour into the assessment.
The medical imaging tested brain activity in the region responsible for appetite and food cravings.
Participants were given either water, a sugary drink or a drink containing the artificial sweetener sucralose and a few tests, and two hours later they were also allowed to eat anything they wanted from a buffet.
The study found the obese participants’ appetites increased considerably after a drink containing sucralose and there were also ‘robust’ results for women and obese women who appeared to be triggered into eating more after consuming sucralose, even more than they would from eating sugar.
“The study highlights the need to consider individual biological factors in research studies,” the authors said.
The results may be explained by the body’s response to sugars and sweeteners.
Dietitian Sophie Medlin told The Age: “When you consume sugar the digestive system, including the mouth and the gut, recognises the sweetness and releases hormones – including insulin – in response to the anticipation of having sugar.
“If you consume sweeteners, it’s been seen that you can release a small amount of insulin. When the sugar doesn’t arrive your blood sugar goes down and you may feel hungrier.”
She said it wasn’t clear why women were more sensitive to sweeteners, but hormones appeared to play some part.
The results confirm a review into artificial sweeteners by the World Health Organization in 2019, which found they didn’t cause any harm but they didn’t help those who were overweight or trying to lose weight.
“Having excess body fat can lead to increased insulin sensitivity and further appetite dysregulation,” Ms Medlin said.
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