The 2012 Harvard study that linked sugary soft drinks to heart disease found no similar link regarding artificially sweetened soft drinks. But in July 2012, American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association announced that existing scientific evidence is “inconclusive” on whether artificial and natural sweeteners truly cut calories, reduce the amount of added sugars that an individual consumes or help you to lose weight.
A 2011 study by University of Texas Health Science Center studied 474 diet-soda drinkers over 10 years and found that the subjects who drank two or more diet sodas every day gained five times as much weight as the subjects who avoided diet sodas altogether. In a separate study that also was published in 2011, the center found that because artificial sweeteners don’t have any calories, they won’t satisfy your appetite in the way that traditional sugars do. But they’ll slow your metabolism and trigger you to eat more. Therefore, you might gain weight from consuming artificial sweeteners more easily than you would gain from consuming sugars. Nestle says she isn’t aware of any convincing evidence that proves that artificial sweeteners help people to lose weight.
Artificial sweeteners also might be addictive, according to a 2011 study by University of Bordeaux in France. Researchers found that rats always picked the artificial sweetener when they were given a choice between an artificial sweetener and cocaine. In fact, even cocaine-addicted rats chose the artificial sweetener.
If the image of artificial-sweetener-addled rats isn’t enough to give you pause, consider that three primary artificial sweeteners—acesulfame potassium, aspartame and saccharin—also have been linked to cancer, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is an advocacy group for health issues and food safety.
Furthermore, a 2011 study by University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine found that people who drank one diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher chance of having a heart attack or stroke.
Questions persist about artificial sweeteners’ links to Alzheimer’s disease, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, according to American Association of Occupational Health Nurses.
STEVIA ON STAGE. Consumers who want to avoid traditional sweeteners can choose agave nectar (found in chocolate, ice cream and snack bars), erythritol (found in grapes, melons and pears), monk fruit (found in some cereals and granolas) and tagatose (found in dairy products).
But the latest trendy favorite that’s among alternative sweeteners is stevia, which is a plant that’s indigenous to Paraguay. Stevia was banned from use as a sweetener in the United States in 1991 by FDA, which made its decision based on an anonymous safety petition. However, in 2008, FDA approved rebaudioside A, which is an extract of stevia, as a food additive.
That decision allowed Merisant and PepsiCo to introduce PureVia, and Cargill and Coca-Cola to release Truvia. Both of these noncaloric sweeteners are made from processed stevia plants and are marketed by the companies as “natural” sweeteners.
But all of the experts with whom we spoke question how “natural” they really are. PureVia includes dextrose, which is a simple sugar, for added flavor. And Truvia contains erythritol, which is a fruit-derived sugar, to improve its taste. Granted, these are natural sweeteners, but they don’t occur naturally in stevia. In other words, PureVia and Truvia are refined products.
Of course, FDA has no definition of the word “natural,” so companies can use the term whenever they wish. And in the case of PureVia and Truvia, the marketing has helped them to muscle into territory that previously was controlled by the primary artificial sweeteners.
Truvia appears in at least 30 products and trails only Splenda (sucralose) in artificial-sweetener sales in the United States, according to SymphonyIRI Group, which is a market-research company. PureVia hasn’t sold as briskly, and Merisant is trying to market it for its lower price. A 40-packet box of Truvia typically sells for $7 on Amazon, while a 40-packet box of PureVia is offered for $3.50.
However, as with all sugar and sweeteners, concerns persist about the safety of rebaudioside A. No expert could point us toward any scientific research on the safety of rebaudioside A that wasn’t funded by the companies that produce and distribute the products that include either sweetener.