Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Are Artificial Sweeteners Helping or Harming Us?

By Gail M. Davis

Artificial Sweeteners became widely used just around the time that Americans started experiencing serious obesity problems. Are these two things related or is the timing a coincidence? Could Saccharin, our first artificial sweetener of the 1950s, be to blame or is it actually the greatest gift to dieters?

The answer to that question isn't as definitive as one would like it to be. Studies are conducted but results are often contradictory.

A historical timeline exists for artificial sweeteners. The first widely used sweetener was Saccharin. Although it had been around since 1879, and used in both world wars due to it's low cost, it was first marketed as Sweet and Low almost 60 years ago. In 1983, Aspartame was introduced and joined by Sucralose in 1999.

The public couldn't get enough of these substances that were being used in low-calorie foods and beverages. The problem is that the artificial sweeteners meant to trick us into thinking that we satisfied our sweet tooth, may be actually confusing our bodies when it comes to controlling calories and our appetites.

A Purdue University study is causing alarm for many people. This experiment, which was conducted on rats, showed that rats eating artificial sweeteners gained more weight and ate more food than those who did not.

The University of Texas Health Science Center conducted another disturbing study that examined the effect of diet soda on weight loss. Their results showed that people who drank even one diet soda a day, over a period of four years, had a 50% increased risk of metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome describes an assortment of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are just a few of the more common risk factors that fall into this category. Apparently drinking even one soda a day increased the obesity risk by 41%.

Not everyone agrees with the findings of these two studies. The Calorie Control Council, an international association representing the low-calorie and reduced-fat food and beverage industry, is quick to point out what they see as flawed studies. The Purdue study, they report, was conducted using a small sample of only ten rats per group. They further point out that studies conducted on rats, which by the way like the taste of saccharin, do not necessarily apply to humans. The study doesn't take into account other factors contributing to weight loss such as larger portion sizes and lack of physical activity.

In examining the second study, the Calorie Control Council reports that no reasons were given as to why diet soda increased the risk of metabolic syndrome. "The researchers did not control for weight gain, which is related to the development of metabolic syndrome, nor did they exclude overweight individuals from the study." The Council points out several important studies that showed artificial sweeteners to be very beneficial to dieters and reported, "Leading health groups agree that low-calorie sweeteners and the products that contain them can help people manage their weight as part of an overall healthy diet."

So, you've heard both sides. Are artificial sweeteners wreaking havoc on your diet or are they allowing you to indulge in foods that keep you satisfied? Can we blame them for our obesity epidemic or do we need to examine our sedentary lives? You're going to have to decide for yourself.

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