Not so Sweet Revenge: Unanticipated Consequences of High-Intensity Sweeteners

Abstract

While no single factor accounts for the significant increases in overweight and obesity that have emerged during the past several decades, evidence now suggests that sugars, in general, and sugar-sweetened beverages, in particular, may be especially problematic. One response to this concern has been an explosion in the availability and use of noncaloric sweeteners as replacements for sugar. While consumers have been led to believe that such substitutes are healthy, long-term epidemiological data in a number of cohorts have documented increased risk for negative outcomes like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke among users of artificial sweeteners. Experimental data from animals has provided several plausible mechanisms that could explain this counterintuitive relationship. In particular, my research has demonstrated that artificial sweeteners appear to interfere with basic learned, predictive relations between sweet tastes and post-ingestive consequences such as the delivery of energy. By interfering with these relations, artificial sweeteners inhibit anticipatory responses that normally serve to maintain physiological homeostasis, and over the long term, this interference could result in negative health effects like those seen in the human cohort studies. These data suggest that reducing the consumption of all sweeteners is advisable to promote better health.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Peter Urcuioli for his helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript.

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that she has no conflicts of interest.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

All applicable international, national, and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of, and were approved by, the Purdue University Animal Care and Use Committee. This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by the author. This work was funded by Purdue University and NIH grants R01DK55531 and P01HD052112.

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Swithers, S.E. Not so Sweet Revenge: Unanticipated Consequences of High-Intensity Sweeteners. BEHAV ANALYST 38, 1–17 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-015-0028-3

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Keywords

  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Health
  • Obesity
  • Classical conditioning