A new systematic review published in the International Journal of Obesity looks at the totality of evidence investigating whether consuming low energy sweeteners (LES), such as aspartame, sucralose, or stevia, is a net benefit or detriment for weight control. In addition to providing some clarity on the answer, the review also provides some insight into how different kinds of evidence address such questions.
LES vs sugar or water
The question may at first seem obvious – if you consume a beverage sweetened with an LES instead of sugar you will be avoiding up to several hundred calories. Those calories add up quickly. Twelve ounces of cola with sugar has 138 calories, for example. These are foods that people generally consume on a daily basis, and so avoiding these unnecessary calories should reduce total energy intake and help reduce or maintain weight.
The human body, however, is a complex system, as is human psychology, and so we have to consider the law of unintended consequences. It is possible, for example, that when people drink a diet beverage they feel they have earned the right to consume more calories elsewhere. This phenomenon is called compensation, and there is evidence for this effect.
Pepsi has announced that it will remove aspartame from its formulation of diet Pepsi products in the US this year. Apparently this is a reaction to a 5% drop in the sales of Pepsi. Seth Kaufman, vice-president of Pepsi, said “Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda.”
This move comes in the same week that Chipotle announced it is removing GMO food from its food chain. Unlike Pepsi, who cited only public opinion, Chipotle went one step further and directly cited pseudoscientific fears of GMOs as their justification. (But that’s another story.)
Like GMOs, aspartame has been widely studied and found to be safe, but remains the target of fear-mongering and conspiracy theories. It is not clear why this one food additive has continued to be the target of a fake controversy, other than that fears and conspiracies can take on a life of their own. The best example of anti-aspartame conspiracy theories comes from Janet Starr Hull, who wrote:
I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.
That is a common claim of conspiracy theorists – the truth is being suppressed out of fears that it will bring chaos if revealed. I think our society will survive Pepsi moving over to a different sweetener. (more…)
Note: This was originally published as a “SkepDoc” column in Skeptic magazine under the title “Aspartame: Safe Sweetener or Perilous Poison?” and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Michael Shermer. There are other artificial sweeteners not specifically addressed here, but as far as I know there are no convincing health concerns about any of them, just this same kind of hype and fearmongering based on animal studies and speculation with no validation from human clinical studies.
Aspartame is a low calorie sugar substitute marketed under brand names like Equal and Nutrasweet. It is a combination of two amino acids: L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. It is available as individual packets for adding to foods and it is a component of many diet soft drinks and other reduced-calorie foods. Depending on who you listen to, it is either a safe aid to weight loss and diabetes control or it is evil incarnate, a deadly poison that is devastating the health of consumers.
A reader sent me an ad from his local newspaper that recommended using stevia instead of aspartame and made these startling claims about aspartame:
- It is derived from the excrement of genetically modified E. coli bacteria
- Upon ingestion, it breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid.
- It accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA each year including seizures, migraines, dizzinesss, nausea, muscle spasms, weight gain, depression, fatigue, irritability, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety, tinnitus, schizophrenia and death.
Let’s look at those claims one by one.