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Are Sweeteners Really Better Than Sugar?

Update Date: Jul 10, 2013 12:43 PM EDT

More and more Americans are replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners, but scientists are still skeptical the sweet alternative really is better for health.

A new paper, published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, looks at previous findings of the negative impact of artificial sweeteners on health and raises red flags about all sweeteners, including those that don't have any calories.

"It is not uncommon for people to be given messages that artificially sweetened products are healthy, will help them lose weight or will help prevent weight gain," study author Susan E. Swithers of Purdue University said in a news release. "The data to support those claims are not very strong, and although it seems like common sense that diet sodas would not be as problematic as regular sodas, common sense is not always right."

Many studies have linked consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome-a group of risk factors that raises the risk for heart disease and stroke. Therefore, many Americans have turned to artificial sweeteners, which are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar but contain few, if any, calories. However, new research on humans show that consumption of artificially sweetened beverage is also associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome as well as cardiovascular disease. In fact, having just one artificially sweetened drink per day is enough to significantly increase the risk for these health problems.

What's more, people who regularly consume artificial sweeteners show abnormal activation patterns in the brain's pleasure centers in response to sweet taste, suggesting that these products may not satisfy the desire for sweets. In animal studies, scientists found that mice and rats given non-caloric sweeteners have dampened physiological responses to sweet taste.  These desensitization causes the rodents to overindulge in calorie-rich, sweet-tasting food and gain weight.

Researchers concluded that recent findings suggest that artificial sweeteners increase the risk for health problems to an extent similar to that of sugar and may also exacerbate the negative effects of sugar.

"These studies suggest that telling people to drink diet sodas could backfire as a public health message," said Swithers. "So the current public health message to limit the intake of sugars needs to be expanded to limit intake of all sweeteners, not just sugars."

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