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Artificial sweeteners and metabolic dysregulation: Lessons learned from agriculture and the laboratory


Escalating rates of obesity and public health messages to reduce excessive sugar intake have fuelled the consumption of artificial sweeteners in a wide range of products from breakfast cereals to snack foods and beverages. Artificial sweeteners impart a sweet taste without the associated energy and have been widely recommended by medical professionals since they are considered safe. However, associations observed in long-term prospective studies raise the concern that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners might actually contribute to development of metabolic derangements that lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Obtaining mechanistic data on artificial sweetener use in humans in relation to metabolic dysfunction is difficult due to the long time frames over which dietary factors might exert their effects on health and the large number of confounding variables that need to be considered. Thus, mechanistic data from animal models can be highly useful because they permit greater experimental control. Results from animal studies in both the agricultural sector and the laboratory indicate that artificial sweeteners may not only promote food intake and weight gain but can also induce metabolic alterations in a wide range of animal species. As a result, simple substitution of artificial sweeteners for sugars in humans may not produce the intended consequences. Instead consumption of artificial sweeteners might contribute to increases in risks for obesity or its attendant negative health outcomes. As a result, it is critical that the impacts of artificial sweeteners on health and disease continue to be more thoroughly evaluated in humans.

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Supported by funds from Purdue University and NIH grant NHLBI 1R21HL126052 (SES) and by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC, JS).

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Correspondence to Susan E. Swithers.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed and all procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted.

Conflict of interest

SES has received research grants from the National Institutes of Health; speaker honoraria from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Association for Behavioral Analysis International; and travel reimbursement for speaking from the Association for Chemoreception Sciences, Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Sugar Reduction Summit, and the Mortimer D. Sackler, M.D. Winter Conference on Developmental Psychobiology. JS has received research grants from the The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. They have no other conflicts to declare.

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Shearer, J., Swithers, S.E. Artificial sweeteners and metabolic dysregulation: Lessons learned from agriculture and the laboratory. Rev Endocr Metab Disord 17, 179–186 (2016).

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  • Nutrition
  • Metabolism
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Obesity
  • Disease risk
  • Population health