By Ann J. Curley
(CNN) — You’ve got a sugar craving but don’t want to put on more pounds, so you turn to alternative sweeteners. Is that a good move?
A joint scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association reveals that while non-nutritive sweeteners can be useful for limiting carbohydrates and limiting added sugars in the diet, the existing scientific evidence is inconclusive about whether this strategy works well in the long run for cutting calories, reducing dietary sugar and losing weight.
The non-nutritive sweeteners in the analysis include both artificial sweeteners and stevia, which is marketed as a natural sweetener. Because the study was not looking at the safety of sweeteners, they chose products that were regarded as generally safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The products include aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), sucralose (Splenda), Neotame, and stevia (Truvia, PureVia, Sweet Leaf).
Previous research has shown that diets high in added sugar increase triglycerides and obesity, increasing risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. In 2009 the American Heart Association recommended that Americans cut back on added sugars in their diets, suggesting that women limit added sugar calories to 100 per day, and men to 150 per day.
While the AHA position on limiting added sugars in the diet was important, “the logical question was “how?”, said lead scientific statement author Christopher Gardner of Stanford University. He explained that his group was tasked with analyzing the available data on non-nutritive sweeteners in the diet and their role in cutting calories and added sugar.
“Smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners can be a tool for consumers, reducing calories, added sugars in the diet, and helping consumers maintain or reach a healthy weight that fights the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes,” but Gardner added that determining the benefits of non-nutritive sweeteners is a complex issue. For example, “if you choose a beverage sweetened with non-nutritive sweetener, replacing the 150 calories of a sugar sweetened drink, and then indulge in a 300 calorie cookie later in the day, you’re going to end up eating more calories than you subtracted.”
For consumers, Gardiner says there are three important points to take away from the scientific statement:
1. Compensation is the big issue: When people eliminate added sugars by choosing a beverage or food with non-nutritive sweeteners, the key to losing or maintaining weight is to not overcompensate by indulging in other foods that are high in calories. Non-nutritive sweeteners won’t benefit consumers who later compensate by eating other high calorie snacks.
2. Non-nutritive beverage and food products are different: Gardiner says that people don’t compensate the same way for non-nutritive beverages as they do with food containing non-nutritive sweeteners. “Here is the twist – when people eat foods with non-nutritive sweeteners, people tend to compensate more by eating more calories… it seems to be physiological,” he explained.
3. Non-nutritive sweeteners are a tool for eating fewer carbohydrates and added sugars, but it’s important for consumers to keep an eye on the big picture. Gardiner notes that one of the best ways for limiting added sugar in the diet is to follow the American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines, which include eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish, low-fat or non-fat dairy and lean meats without skin.