Artificial sweeteners have come a long way over the years, now closely mimicking natural sweeteners but without the calories.
The sweeteners are effective tools to help obese consumers reduce calorie consumption, but researchers at York University's Faculty of Health say that weight management may come at a price.
"Our study shows that individuals with obesity who consume artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, may have worse glucose management than those who don't take sugar substitutes," Professor Jennifer Kuk, obesity researcher in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science, said in a release.
Artificial sweeteners lack caloric content because they are not digested by the body. If they can make food taste better without adding calories, it can help consumers manage their weight. But the York University study found that in some cases, bacteria in the stomach may be able to break down the artificial sweetener. When that happens, researchers say there can be negative effects on health.
No adverse effect from saccharin
Kuk said the research team didn't find this adverse effect in people consuming saccharin – an early artificial sweetener – or natural sugars. The findings, however, left them with more questions than answers.
"We will need to do future studies to determine whether any potentially negative health effects of artificial sweeteners outweigh the benefits for obesity reduction," Luk said.
This is hardly the first research to suggest there could be some downside to using food and beverage products containing artificial sweeteners. A 2008 study by psychologists at Purdue University found that compared with rats that ate yogurt sweetened with sugar, rats given yogurt sweetened with zero-calorie saccharin later consumed more calories, gained more weight, put on more body fat, and didn't make up for it by cutting back later.
Later that same year a Duke University study that focused on the artificial sweetener Splenda concluded the product contributes to obesity, destroys beneficial intestinal bacteria, and could even interfere with absorption of prescription drugs.
Pepsi dumps aspartame
Last year Pepsi announced it would remove aspartame from its beverages sold in the U.S., reacting to research that suggests the artificial sweetener – while not imparting calories – might creating sugar cravings among people who consume too much, thus negating the benefits of a no-calorie beverage.
Today, food manufacturers have many options when it comes to new sugar substitutes. The York researchers says more investigation should be carried out to determine if there are any health effects of using these sweeteners.