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696: Semi-Sweet

In 1897, a researcher who was looking for additional uses for coal tar derivatives tasted something sweet on his hands, and in an example of the most brave type of science, he tasted everything in his lab to figure out what it was. What he eventually discovered was the first artificial sweetener — saccharin.

In the well over 100 years since, artificial sweeteners have become, at the best, controversial choices to use as alternatives for sugar.

And the debate over these products has been going for just as long. The idea is pretty basic in theory — something that tastes just as sweet as sugar, but without the caloric load of sugar. Way back in the time of Teddy Roosevelt, even, these products were being used as a way to try and encourage weight loss.

But – do they actually do that? And are they actually quote-unquote safe? Frankly, both of those questions are ones with just about every scientific answer out there you can imagine.

As the New York Times reported this year, quote:

Researchers looked at 35 observational studies and 21 controlled trials of nonsugar sweeteners in children and adults. They found no convincing evidence that nonsugar sweeteners had any effect in adults on eating behavior, cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, mood, behavior or cognition. The study, in BMJ, did find a slight benefit in promoting weight loss and improving fasting blood glucose levels, but only in small studies and over short periods of time. The lead author, Dr. Joerg J. Meerpohl, of the University of Freiburg, said that “the goal of the work was to summarize the evidence, not to make practical recommendations,” and although they found no evidence of harm, they could not exclude the possibility, either.

Similarly, a 2011 review of the research about artificial sweeteners published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmotheraputics found that, quote:

Sugar substitutes in various food and beverages are very popular in most of the countries. Extensive scientific research has demonstrated the safety of the six low-calorie sweeteners currently approved for use in foods in the U.S. and Europe (stevia, acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose) each with an acceptable daily intake. A number of studies have been carried out to confirm the safety of artificial sweeteners. A number of studies have also shown the adverse effects of the same. But most of the studies have limitations such as effects shown only in animals not in human, small sample size, high doses, statistically non-significant or borderline significant, etc.

Even the most-cited recent research about sugar alternatives encouraging weight gain are inconsistent at best. So this is one of those products where truly, the research doesn’t seem to provide good guidance. So what do you choose?