Artificial sweetener: dieting blessing or curse?

For as long as I can remember, people have been suspicious of artificial sweeteners. Diet drinks and candies were seen by many as too good to be true, and people worried about adding ‘chemicals’ to their diet. Aspartame in particular is often singled out in casual conversation for causing all kinds of maladies, but this was just gossip, not grounded in evidence.

The whole idea of adding some sweet artificial elixir to our diets and becoming fit and trim seems a little lazy, even silly. Think of the obese customer at the fast food joint who orders a cheese burger, chips, onion rings and apple pie with a diet cola.

That said, it’s indisputable that we are collectively overdosing on sugar, and an enjoyable substitute is surely a great way to help us cut down. It’s not hard to see why many people came to appreciate substituting sugary drinks and snacks for artificially sweetened products – taken, as per the instructions, as part of a calorie controlled diet – as an effective weight loss and health strategy.

A sweetener with a bitter aftertaste?

A recent study has raised some fascinating and surprising concerns about the effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on our bodies.

The study, led by Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute, provides evidence that artificial sweeteners affect the bacteria in our gut in a way that can actually exacerbate obesity!

According to Nature, the prestigious journal in which the report appears, Elinav was intrigued by a study showing a correlation between obesity and sweetener consumption. Are artificial sweeteners contributing to obesity, or do obese people simply tend to consume more artificial sweeteners, in an attempt to lose weight?

Elinav’s researchers fed seven healthy volunteers, who were not in the habit of consuming sweeteners, a diet rich in artificial sweetener for a week. The researchers noticed two interesting effects: four of the seven became glucose intolerant and the bacteria in their gut were affected in a way linked to metabolic syndrome.

This was a small study, and the results are very preliminary. The research, however, certainly should make consumers think more carefully about using non-nutritive sugar substitutes.

Back on the sugarcane train?

There can be little doubt that excess consumption of refined foods is contributing to the obesity pandemic. Artificial sweeteners may turn out to be a poor substitute for natural sugar, but that doesn’t mean we ought to give up and keep binging on sugary snacks.

This may sound boring, but moderation is still key to a healthy lifestyle. Cut down on processed foods and sugary snacks and eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. (Some diets, of course, will have you restricting the amount of fruit you eat.)

This doesn’t mean cutting down on sugar can’t be fun. There are plenty of fresh and flavoursome meals you can make yourself that will taste so good, and be so much fun to make, that you’ll wonder why you ever settled for cola and potato chips.