CANADA: New study says more research needed on impacts of alternative sweeteners

Published: 07/17/2017, 10:46:54 AM

Ordering a diet soda as a "healthier" choice may be backfiring, according to Canada's Toronto Star newspaper.

A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has highlighted the need for more research into the potential adverse effects of artificial sweeteners.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba's George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation found an association between artificial sweeteners and long-term weight gain, increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. But they did not find concrete proof of causation.

Meghan Azad, head author of the study and assistant professor in the department of Pediatrics and Child Health and Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, said there is a lack of scientific-based evidence on the long-term impact of consuming artificial sweeteners.

Azad's research suggests that "long term consumption of sweeteners may have adverse effects."

The study highlights the fact that more research needs to be conducted before "the long-term risks and benefits of these products are fully characterized." For instance, the effects of synthetic versus natural low calorie sweeteners have not been thoroughly explored.

This is especially important as the number of people using artificial sweeteners, such as Aspartame and Sucralose, is increasing, Azad said.

The researchers assessed 938 full-text articles, before narrowing that to conduct a systematic review of 37 studies that followed more than 400,000 people for an average of 10 years.

"The results showed a statistically significant association between consumption of artificial sweeteners and higher risks of diabetes and heart disease, as well as increased weight gain," she said.

But following a robust search for trials those available that fit the parameters of the study had some limitations. Seven of the studies were randomized controlled trials, "the gold standard of research," said Azad. But for the most part they didn't follow members of the general population, instead following those who were already obese, and only for an average of about six months.

Thirty of the studies were observational, which have a greater risk of bias because artificial sweetener use is not randomly assigned and people who choose to consume sweeteners may be different from those who don't, in terms of socioeconomic, lifestyles and health-related factors.

David Ma, a professor in the department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, said "it is important to note, the study selectively assessed risk comparing extreme intakes of nonnutritive sweeteners."

"Therefore, the study highlights, very intuitively, that high intakes of anything (even water) may have unintended consequences," he said. "It would be helpful for the authors to have commented further on usual intakes to put things in context."

He agrees with Azad's call for more research into the matter.

"Good science occurs when the state of our knowledge continues to be evaluated," he said. "Overall, I agree with the authors that more work is needed, given the limitations of studies conducted to date."