Low-calorie sweeteners are available for consumers who wish to avoid sugar and save calories while still enjoying something sweet. Health professionals along with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agree that sugar consumption should be reduced to save calories and to promote healthful body weights. Consumer curiosity has been peaked when some observational research suggested that low-calorie sweeteners are associated with weight gain. While this mathematical relationship is intriguing for the scholarly community - many of its members agree consumers at least partially compensate with more food calories when drinking diet beverages - it does not support the mass media headlines that indicate causality. Research has not shown low-calorie sweeteners cause weight gain. In fact, a recent gold-standard study by scholars from the Netherlands confirmed that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages led to weight gain but drinking sugar-free beverages sweetened did not.
Their work, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, was a double-blind, randomized trial that followed a total of 477 participants for 18 months. Participants in this study were children aged 4 to nearly 12 years, and they were from urban areas near Amsterdam. Both the control and the intervention groups were statistically similar. Children who participated were eligible if they normally consumed sugar-sweetened beverages and if their parents/guardians agreed to participation.
The intervention called for daily consumption of an 8-ounce canned beverage dispensed during school days by teachers who also reminded children to take home cans for the weekend or holidays. An extra can was available in the event one went missing during the week. No one in the study knew if the beverage contained sugar or the low-calorie sweetener combination. Anthropometric data, including body weight, height, skinfold thickness from four sites on the body, waist circumference, and bioelectrical impedance, were measured and urine samples were collected at several stages throughout the study. Children consuming the sugar-free beverages gained about 2 pounds less over the 18 months compared to those who drank the beverage with sugar. This outcome in the study was statistically significant, and to the bigger picture of public health, it is paramount.
Just as health professionals and the Dietary Guidelines recommend, reducing liquid calories helps consumers rebalance the weight management equation. Drinking calorie-free beverages, such as the kind used in this study sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners, as well as unsweetened tea or water, for example, help save calories while hydrating. Furthermore, it underscores the position that the total dietary pattern someone follows still matters and that diet drinks are not a license to splurge elsewhere. At the end of the day, consumers have several options to save calories without skimping on taste.
D. Milton Stokes, PhD, MPH, RD, CDN, is a Registered Dietitian / Nutritionist and owner of One Source Nutrition, LLC. He has over 20 years experience in the areas of food and nutrition as a nutrition counselor and former restaurateur.
de Ruyter, et al. 2012