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If you want to lose weight, your choice is obvious, isn't it? Artificial sweeteners. Or is it? Here, we explore the fact and fiction of sugar and sweeteners and discover which is healthier.

What's the fuss about the sweet stuff?

Rates of obesity are rising. 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK and 68.8% of all adults in the US are either overweight or obese. Amid this rising problem, a growing movement of "No Sugar" proponents are leading a fight-back. They claim that if we all cut our 238 weekly teaspoons of sugar (in the UK) and replaced them with artificial or natural sweeteners, we would have a healthier, more slender world.

To achieve this, politicians have proposed enforcing taxing high-sugar drinks and outright banning high-sugar products aimed at children (such as, in the UK, the sugar-rich cereals Frosties and Sugar Puffs).

It's claimed that sugar overrides normal brain activity by creating powerful reward signals every time we eat it, leading to addiction. This sugar addiction damages our self-control and leads us to eat evermore sugar. This is a similar mechanism to that seen with cocaine and other drug addictions.

To satisfy our collective sweet tooth, a variety of artificial and natural sweeteners have been manufactured.

But are they as good as they claim to be?

What are sweeteners?

Sweeteners are alternatives to sucrose (table sugar). There are four main types of sweeteners:

  • Artificial sweeteners: These use a synthetic sugar substitute. Examples include: Acesulfame Potassium/K; Aspartame; Sucralose; Saccharin
  • Sugar alcohols: These are carbohydrates that naturally occur in fruit and vegetables, such as Sorbitol and xylitol
  • Novel sweeteners: A combination of several types of sweetener, such as Stevia
  • Natural sweeteners: These are naturally-occurring sugar substitutes that are often promoted as being healthier than sugar. These include: agave nectar; honey; maple syrup; molasses.

Artificial Sweeteners: The Lowdown

Artificial sweeteners are the oldest and still the most commonly-used sugar-substitute. The first, Saccharin, was invented in 1879, using a derivative of coal tar by researchers at John Hopkins University. They are now incredibly popular, used in everything from cola drinks, to cookies, to jams.

One of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners is Aspartame.

Michael F. Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, had this to say about Aspartame: "Aspartame has been found to cause cancer - leukemia, lymphoma, and other tumours - in laboratory animals, and it shouldn't be in the food supply."

Among 92 potential side-effects in humans, Aspartame has also been linked to migraine, childhood hyperactivity, rash, increased thirst, and nausea.

But these artificial sweeteners have to help you keep slim, right?

Actually, no.

There is no evidence that artificial sweeteners help you lose weight. In fact, they may promote weight gain.

As Rogers et al (1988) demonstrated in a study found in the journal Physiology & Behavior, regular use of low- or no-calorie artificial sweeteners leads to an increase in appetite. This makes you more likely to gain weight, due to overeating. Of Saccharin, Aspartame and Acesulfame K, Aspartame provoked the biggest increase in appetite.

However, artificial sweeteners, such as Aspartame and Saccharin may be of benefit to diabetics. Because they are completely artificial, and are not made with carbohydrate, they may be consumed without raising the blood sugars. If you're a diabetic, you should always check with your dietician before using artificial sweetener.

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