Why artificial sweeteners are good for you

Article published 1 November 2023

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The World Health Organisation has got it wrong on artificial sweeteners an eminent Dutch food scientist says. They're good for you!

AN eminent nutritional scientist, Prof. Martijn Katan, argues that we should ignore the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) earnest advice not to use artificial sweeteners in food and drink.

Prof. Katijn notes that every expert, including the WHO, on the basis of evidence, believes that sweeteners don’t cause cancer.

But why would the WHO be against sweeteners then?

Why WHO is wrong

Prof. Katijn explains that the WHO bases its advice on studies of what happens to real people using artificial sweeteners in real life. The WHO believes that the use of artificial sweeteners leads to overeating and obesity.

Prof Katijn argues that in deciding whether sweeteners are good or bad, effective or ineffective, experiments are of greater value than real life experiences.

Generally, experiments are to be preferred, because it allows for the exclusion of factors that can cloud the issue.

The way the WHO approached the issue was that it looked at the real-life experiences of two groups of people. One group used sweeteners of their own accord. The other group didn’t use sweeteners.

In such real-life studies, it turns out that many people who use sweeteners of their own accord are obese.

It could be that people in this group think they can eat anything with sweeteners rather than sugar in it (deserts, cake, chocolate bars) without putting on a lot of weight.

The WHO’s conclusion was (1) that sweeteners caused people to put on weight and (2) that people should therefore not use sweeteners.

Of course, Prof. Katijn says, another possibility why people who carry more weight use sweeteners is that they think it will make them lose weight.

The WHO’s conclusion is very similar to a conclusion that is sometimes drawn from real-life studies which show that people who use vitamin supplements suffer less disease than people who don’t use vitamin supplements. Conclusion: taking vitamin supplements is good for you.

But in experiments in which one group of people is given vitamin supplements and another group pretend-vitamin supplements (placebos), the same rates of disease occur in both groups. Conclusion: taking vitamin supplements makes no difference at all.

Prof. Katijn points out that people who take vitamins of their own accord in real life are more concerned about their health and will therefore live more healthy lives generally: no smoking, plenty of exercise, keeping thin by not overeating. This is what keeps them healthier than people who are not, or less, concerned about their health, not the vast quantities of vitamins they swallow.

Something similar is going on with sweeteners. Looking at experiments, a different picture emerges from what the WHO found. It’s a picture that has prompted Prof. Katijn to reject the WHO’s position on sweeteners.

He singles out an experiment with 163 women who were obese. Half of them were asked to follow a weight-loss diet with aspartame (a common artificial sweetener), and the other half were asked to follow the same diet but with sugar.

After three years, the entire group had lost significant weight, but the half using aspartame had lost five kilos more on average than the group using sugar.

This, Prof. Katijn says, is proof that sweeteners have an important role to play in weight-loss and maintaining a healthy weight. Sweeteners cut out all the carbohydrates of sugar.

It is also proof that sweeteners don’t cause obesity.

Soft drinks

Soft drinks with sugar are among Prof. Katijn’s pet hates. They are laden with sugar. A nation switching from soft drinks with sugar (6 to 8 spoonfuls per can) to soft drinks with artificial sweeteners would greatly improve its public health outcomes.

Also read:

The table salt that adds years to your life

Joint pain relief comes with liver risk



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