Artificial Sweeteners May Have Opposite Effects

Saccharin, a widely used sugar substitute intended to decrease caloric intake, may indirectly produce the opposite results. Research has found that the consumption of saccharin (perhaps best recognized by the popular consumer label “Sweet’N Low”) may lead to decreased appetite control, resulting in a higher caloric intake and weight gain.

In many animals, it is thought that there are automatic processes in the body that regulate caloric intake. One of these processes is the recognition of sweetness, and the automatic response of the body to the projected caloric intake of something sweet. This process presumably allows animals to know when they are going to be full based on the level of sweetness of what they’re consuming. Artificial sweeteners like saccharin, which do not contain calories, potentially interfere with the body’s automatic calorie response, leading to less control over appetite.

This concept, which was the primary basis for the applicability of the study under question, is very controversial when applied to humans. Many researchers believe that human responses are more complex than this, while others believe there are many simple automatic digestive and metabolic processes in humans as well. The study here was conducted on adult male rats, so the applicability to humans is speculative.

The rats were separated into two main groups based on different seven day diets. Group one consumed yogurt sweetened with sugar. Group two consumed yogurt “sweetened” with saccharin. Both groups consumed unsweetened yogurt as well. The purpose was to observe what would happen to these rats when they had their natural association between sweetness and caloric intake thrown off, namely in group two, and compare those effects to group one.

“We found that reducing the correlation between sweet taste and the caloric content of foods using artificial sweeteners in rats resulted in increased caloric intake, [and] increased body weight” stated study author Dr. Susan Swithers of Purdue University. This result suggests that the digestive systems and metabolisms of the rats in group two do indeed get confused and function improperly, leading to the weight gain. As Dr. Swithers says, “The artificial sweetener provides the signal that not as many calories are going to come, and the animal responds by consuming more calories.”

If these results do translate to humans (which can only be shown with more extensive research), the implications of the study could be profound. Many people consume artificial sweeteners in order to lose weight, such as with diet sodas, and if consumption of these products has the opposite effect than that desired, there would certainly be a major change in the level of consumption. With obesity a growing concern, and artificial sweeteners in high abundance, this is likely to be a popular and heated topic in the near future.

Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Swithers, Susan. Davidson, Terry. Behavioral Neuroscience. “A Role for Sweet Taste: Calorie Predictive Relations in Energy Regulation By Rats.” February 2008.