Americans Are Consuming More Low-Calorie Sweeteners. Is This a Bad Thing?

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“More.” It’s an interesting word. Generally speaking, it has a great connotation. More money? Yes, please. More time? That sounds terrific, thank you. When it comes to food issues, however, more doesn’t always seem better.

A study recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as the media headlines that surfaced following its publication, asserts that a “200 percent increase in kids’ use of artificial sweeteners concerns scientists.” On the surface, this may seem alarming, but is it?

The study found that 25 percent of children (≤17 years old) and 41 percent of adults (18+ years old) reported consuming at least one product per day containing low- and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCSs). In comparing these responses to previously published National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data (1999-2000), the authors found a 200 percent and 54 percent increase, respectively.

While NHANES analyses can be extremely useful in identifying trends and generating hypotheses for future research, they cannot establish cause and effect. To put it simply, this study doesn’t tell us if the uptick in the reported consumption of LNCS-containing products is having a positive or negative effect on health.sugar from a spoon

And isn’t that the most important question? In evaluating evidence from the highest quality LNCS studies (i.e. randomized controlled trials, and systematic reviews and meta-analyses of those trials), the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans found positive effects on body weight, calorie intake, and adiposity (body fat) in children and adults when calorie-containing sugars are replaced with LNCSs. And this isn’t just an American thing. The European Food Safety Authority has also conducted numerous reviews and come to similar conclusions.

The study also fails to comment on the observed LNCS increases in relation to well-established levels of safe consumption. The fact is that, even with the LNCS increases reported in this study, total LNCS intake remains far below the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for LNCSs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In the past decade or so, nutrition professionals have placed a large emphasis on encouraging Americans to eat and drink fewer calories, specifically those from added sugars. Recently published data continues to demonstrate that we’re following this advice—and have been steadily since 1999, in fact. While Americans still consume more added sugar than is currently recommended, our added sugar and calorie intake is, in fact, declining.

But there’s always a trade-off. If we’re consuming less added sugar, does it mean people aren’t still eating sweet-tasting foods and beverages? Of course not. We’re born liking sweetness—it’s human nature. It’s not surprising that this study (and others) suggests that in a time when we’re consuming less added sugar, products containing LNCSs have become more popular.

LNCSs serve an important purpose. They deliver the same sweetness you expect from sugar, just without the calories, which can be of great benefit for weight management. They also can help people with diabetes more effectively manage their blood sugar. And perhaps most importantly, they’re safe, they’ve been tested rigorously, and they give us all the option to enjoy lower-calorie versions of our favorite foods and beverages.

Sounds pretty sweet, if you ask me.