Confusion and misunderstanding still surrounds artificial sweeteners - and it’s not helping the fight against obesity and diabetes, according to new research from Liverpool Hope University.
So-called ‘non-nutritive sweeteners’ or ‘low-calorie sweeteners’ - like aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and stevia - are alternatives to traditional sugar.
These ‘artificial’ sweeteners contain fewer calories than sugar and can also help maintain blood sugar levels, which are crucial factors when it comes to warding off weight gain and diabetes.
Let, according to a new study from Hope, huge swathes of the population still shuns sweeteners in the mistaken belief they’re harmful to health.
And Dr Grace Farhat, Lecturer in Food Science and Nutrition at Hope and who led the national survey, is now calling for an education campaign to improve the reputation of non-nutritive sweeteners in order to get more people making the sugar-sweetener swap.
The academic, who recently appeared as an expert on Channel 5 documentary series The Wonderful World of Chocolate, says: “The benefits of non-nutritive sweeteners outweigh the harmful effects of sugars.
“Yet sweeteners have gained a poor reputation over the years and It’s really important to educate consumers and health practitioners about these sweeteners, and how there’s now a real consensus among experts as to the benefits.
“Crucially, sweeteners have been shown to help control weight and glucose compared to sugars. It’s something that could contribute to lowering the obesity and diabetes epidemic when used as alternatives to sugar.
“And what’s also important is to tell people that ‘artificial’ doesn’t mean harmful.”
Attitudes towards sweeteners were revealed through an online survey of almost 1,600 adults in the UK, with participants recruited through various social media platforms.
And the study also revealed some widespread worries and concerns about sweeteners.
Many agreed with statements suggesting sweeteners are bad for health (41%)’, ‘cause people to gain weight’ (30%), and could even contribute to cancer (33%).
Dr Farhat says that these views are not supported by recent evidence - and 30-year-old research that once claimed a link between cancer and sweeteners has been roundly debunked and disproved by modern science.
She adds: “It’s important to note that the original cancer research in particular involved testing on animals, not humans.”
Meanwhile almost half disagreed with the statement ‘I think artificial sweeteners are absolutely safe for health’.
Dr Farhat, who is registered with the UK Association for Nutrition, adds: “There’s no scientific evidence which supports the fear surrounding sweeteners.
“Such worries are unsubstantiated - and which is why we need consumer education to try and combat these concerns.”
You might already be consuming artificial sweeteners without realising it, as they’re present in lots of foods, including some canned drinks and hot chocolate.
Meanwhile some of the common sweetener brands you might see in the supermarket include Sweetex, Canderel, Splenda and Truvia Stevia.
The Liverpool Hope University research found that older people in particular were concerned about the supposed harmful effects of sweeteners, while those aged between 25 and 34 were the least worried.
To combat misinformation surrounding sweeteners people in the UK need to be better informed
She reveals: “We need to tell people that there has been extensive research into sweeteners that showed their benefits.
"All authorities - the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - have all confirmed the safety of sweeteners.
“And when you think of a product like Stevia, for example, it’s actually derived from a South American plant and could be considered more ‘natural’ than many processed sugars.”
The good news about the Hope research is that Dr Farhat - and study co-authors Dr Leo Stevenson and Fleur Dewison - were able to prove just how easy it is for sweeteners to win hearts and minds.
In the second part of the survey, participants were given up-to-date scientific information about sweeteners which explored their benefits.
After reading the text, 44 per cent of respondents said they weren’t previously aware of this information, 33 per cent stated that they ‘changed their opinions’ - while 19 per cent remained unconvinced.
Dr Farhat adds: “Although our survey does not provide enough data for us to be able to know how people might change their consumption habits over a long period of time, we showed that even sharing simple information with them helped to improve the reputation of sweeteners.
“And if we can share this information much more widely, particularly through social media or a leaflet campaign, it could really help convey the right message to consumers.
“Knowledge and awareness about the safety of sweeteners is essential.”
Dr Farhat says this knowledge and information could be shared through a wide variety of means, from government health agencies and regulatory bodies to improved food packaging.
She says: “Social media is the most powerful tool, but the social media message needs to come from a trusted authority or regulatory body, such as the NHS, in order to convey the message.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but over time we can help change opinions.
“I’d also argue that now is a good time to begin this process. People have significantly gained weight during the pandemic.
“It might be a good idea for such people to control their energy intake. And sugars in snacks are consumed the most.
“While long-term studies on sweeteners are still ongoing, we have substantial evidence to establish their beneficial role on glucose control, appetite and weight.”
It’s not the first time Dr Farhat has explored the potential benefits of sweeteners.
In a separate study released last year, she found that Stevia helped to reduce hunger and appetite - while also helping to control blood sugar levels.
Writing in the journal Nutrients, she adds: “Stevia lowers appetite sensation and does not further increase food intake and post-lunch glucose levels. It could be a useful strategy in obesity and diabetes prevention and management.”
** You can find the new research paper here: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/2/444