Sweeteners against obesity myth or reality?

Usually, sweeteners are considered a beneficial option for managing obesity. But how true is it? In this article, we tell you more.

The term “sweetener” refers to any substance capable of providing a sweet taste. In this article,  we focus on those who do not provide calories. Are these sweeteners good allies against obesity?

Throughout history, we have shown an undeniable predilection for sweet foods. Nevertheless,  during the eighteenth century, we discovered that sugar was harmful. At the same time, the stereotype of beauty has changed and now corresponds to a slimmer silhouette.

These two circumstances led to the  creation of the first non-caloric sweetener at the end of the 19th century. Thus, the desired sweet taste seemed guaranteed, without reaching the health of consumers. What else do we know about this?

Sweeteners are fit for human consumption:

Sweeteners have been shown to be  safe and suitable for human consumption. However,  it is essential to respect the maximum doses established by official bodies.

However, their benefits on the prevention, treatment and control of overweight and obesity  have been questioned by many investigations.

We have particularly studied their action on: insulin, appetite , satiety, feeling of reward, gut microbiota and adipocytes, among others. All of these factors are involved in the origin of obesity.

Are sweeteners against obesity beneficial?

Scientific research does not support the use of sweeteners against obesity. Here are the reasons why they are ineffective:

Action on the release of insulin:

Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas that aims to eliminate  excess glucose in the blood. To do this,  it transports glucose to glycogen stores and body fat. Until now, it was thought that calorie-free sweeteners were not able to stimulate her release. Although this is partly true, there are nuances.

This indirect effect is due to their  ability to accelerate gastric emptying and increase intestinal absorption. Since these are non-caloric substances, this should not be a disadvantage.

But adding them to foods that contain them (juice, cookies, cakes, dairy products , etc.) makes these two  ideal conditions for generating excess glucose in the blood. And, therefore, a peak of insulin.

Glucose instability  results in repeated stimulation of the pancreas to produce insulin. This then produces what is known as ”  insulin resistance  ” and leads to an increased risk of diabetes mellitus, overweight and obesity.

The energy balance:

The concept of energy balance  refers to the relationship between the calories we consume and those we spend. A positive energy balance means that consumption is greater than spending, and vice versa.

Despite their low caloric content,  sweeteners predispose to a positive energy balance. Here are the reasons:

  • Bigger appetite
  • Less feeling of satiety
  • Counterproductive sweet taste: Repeated exposure to a flavor increases the dependence on it. If we take into account that their sweet taste is unattainable through the consumption of natural foods, then consumer preference for artificial substances is obvious. These usually contain an infinite number of empty calories
  • Idea that foods that contain sweeteners “do not make you fat”: that pushes to consume even more. Therefore, the intake will ultimately be higher than if we had chosen a food in its natural form
  • Reduced thermal effect of food: this concept refers to the amount of calories spent on digestion, absorption and metabolism of food. Their reduction implies a decrease in energy expenditure. This is why the risk of generating a positive energy balance is greater
  • Inability to activate the reward process: therefore, those who consume it need to eat continuously in a permanent search for pleasure.

The effect of sweeteners on the intestinal microbiota:

The  intestinal microbiota  represents all the bacteria that live in symbiosis in our gut (mutual benefit). Although its formation culminates at the age of 2,  it can be modified throughout life by various factors. Food is one of them.

Obese people have a characteristic microbiota that, in turn, promotes the state of obesity. Today, we know that sweeteners are able to generate it.

Action on adipocytes:

The role of sweeteners in the size and number of adipocytes – fat cells – is variable. It depends as much on the characteristics of the sweetener as on the consumer’s. This is why the scientific evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions about this.

vFinally, according to what has just been stated, we can say that sweeteners are not good allies in the approach of overweight and obesity.