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Artificial sweeteners versus sugar

Friday, October 6, 2006
Many people see artificial sweeteners as a handy substitute for sugar. They help keep the calorie count down, so they must be good for weight control, right? Reporter Leila McKinnon asks experts in the US whether this really is true.

Most artificial sweeteners were discovered by accident. In 1879 a lab worker spilled a sweet-tasting chemical onto his hands; accidentally licked his fingers and saccharin had been discovered.

Almost 60 years later, a graduate student detected the sweet taste of a chemical that had accidentally seeped into the cigarette he was smoking and cyclamate was the result.

In 1965, chemist James Schlatter licked his fingers while concocting an anti-ulcer drug and bought aspartame into the world.

Now more than six thousand different types of food and drink worldwide are sweetened artificially.

Guys like Jarrad Paul swear by it. "I was on a bit of an anti-sugar crusade, probably for about two or three years," he says. "I used to be about 92 kilos, I was fairly overweight and just decided to try and get healthy. I now weight about 73 kilos so I'm probably doing something right."

In Texas, Leila meets someone whose experience was the exact opposite.

"I put on weight, I got headaches," says Dr Janet Starr Hull of her use of artificial sweeteners.

Janet researched the health impacts of artificial sweeteners and wrote a book about the conclusions she drew, Sweet Poison.

"I believe all chemical sugar substitutes or fake sugars are harmful to health," she says.

But where there's one opinion, you'll soon find the opposite. "We have tested these sweeteners more than we have tested any chemical in the food supply," says Dr Elizabeth Whelan. She's the head of an organisation that evaluates health research, the American Council on Science and Health.

"I think it's time for people to understand that these sweeteners are safe," she says. "And use them appropriately."

Dr Whelan also says that artificial sweeteners offer health advantages over sugar. For one, they don't cause tooth decay, as sticky sugars can. For diabetics who can't have sugar, artificial sweeteners like saccharin have been a godsend.

Of course, the biggest issue in this debate is weight loss. New research at the University of Texas has found that people who use diet drinks don't necessarily lose weight. In fact, they can put it on.

Dr Sharon Fowler and her colleagues examined more than five thousand people over a seven-year study. "Those who used artificial sweeteners gained 50 percent more weight than the people who did not," says Dr Fowler.

How could people using diet drinks put on weight? One possibility is people mistakenly think a "diet drink" means they can eat more non-diet food. They overcompensate and stack on the kilos.

Another theory is zero calorie diet drinks might actually make you hungry.

"It could be that when you put anything in your body that is not water, the gastric acid levels start to rise in anticipation with dealing with calories," explains Dr Fowler. "Well, then you start feeling hungry. If there are no calories, you may wind up looking for something else."

All this doesn't mean artificial sweeteners are bad for us, says co-author on Dr Fowler's study, Professor Michael Stern — they just haven't solved our obesity problem.

"The introduction of diet products, which is now many decades ago, has not in any way prevented this really worldwide epidemic of obesity," he says.

Artificial sweeteners aren't a magic bullet. If you want to watch your weight, you still need to eat well and exercise regularly. But you can use sweeteners knowing there's no medically proven evidence that they're harmful to human health.

So what's the final verdict from our experts in the sugar versus artificial sweetener debate?

"Personally I would use nothing but the non-nutritive sweeteners," says Dr Whelan.

"I would absolutely say go with the sugar," says Dr Fowler. "I will not pour anything into my body that has artificial sweeteners at this point."

"My advice would be to use natural, unprocessed sugars whenever possible," says Janet Hall.

The jury is still out on this one, but if you're trying to lose weight and curb cravings, well, perhaps using natural sugars in your diet is not such a bad thing after all.


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