We have a love-hate relationship with artificial sweeteners. On the one hand, we love them because they allow us to indulge in delicious liquid candy without the sugary guilt. On the other, we hate them because they are scary chemicals that inevitably inspire enough fear and disgust to warrant a news splash at least once a month on how terrible they truly are.
And the last few weeks are no different. News sources around the globe have been calling out warnings about a new study that appears to have shown that low-calorie sweeteners are not just a great way to get sweetness into your life, but basically poison for expecting mothers and their children.
It’s a story we love to hear, because it speaks to the very real fear of pollutants that we all instinctively connect with. It’s a fear that has people around the world worried about things they can’t pronounce, and it’s the main selling-point of organic food. We are all worried about things we don’t understand, and nothing is more mysterious than strange chemicals produced in a lab that then go into our food.
But while we may be terrified of scary-sounding chemicals, the reality is that artificial or low-calorie sweeteners aren’t likely to be that bad for our health. They are, at the very least, probably a bit better than sugar.
The headlines were wrong. You probably don’t need to worry about sweeteners and your children just yet.
As ever, the first thing to do when hearing claims like the ones above is to go looking for the actual science that they are based on. So I did. My first point of call was the press release, which spends almost 1,000 words telling you how awful sweeteners might be before letting you in on a tiny bit of detail of the study itself.
I then clicked through the helpful link at the bottom (you should too, give it a go) that took me directly to the study. And immediately heaved a great sigh, because it doesn’t take much to know that this isn’t likely to apply directly to your life after all.
Yes, this was a rodent study that gave sweeteners — either stevia or aspartame — to pregnant mice and rats. The rodents that had sweeteners didn’t gain weight, but there were some marginally statistically significant differences in their offspring that indicated some potential harm associated with the sweeteners.
That’s really it. All the fear, all the scare-stories, they were built on some vague changes to the microbiome and a minor increase in body weight of rats and mice.
Now, it’s worth remembering that rodent research is very useful. Without studies in rats and mice, we would not have unveiled many secrets of our bodies or the world.
Rats are not people. Minor harms demonstrated in a few rodents won’t necessarily translate into definitive issues for real human beings. Pre-clinical research like this is useful for identifying potential mechanisms of harm, but since the best evidence we’ve got at the moment doesn’t show that artificial sweeteners are particularly bad it’s not adding much to the equation.
It’s also worth remembering that while the microbiome is a hot topic at the moment, we don’t really know what changes to it might mean. It might be that the microbiome causes issues in our body, but it might simply be that our microbiome reacts to other changes going on and doesn’t itself cause the health issues we’ve observed. This becomes even more true when we’re talking about the bacterial differences observed between rats who are or aren’t eating sweeteners in their high-calorie chow.
Ultimately, while the story does sound a bit terrifying, in context the evidence is pretty underwhelming. Yes, there were some changes in the babies of some rodents when they had sweeteners instead of water, but whether that means much for your or your future children’s health is anyone’s guess.
The best evidence hasn’t really changed much since I last wrote about sweeteners — drink water if you can. Failing that, artificial or low-calorie sweeteners are probably better for you than sugary beverages.
Just don’t worry too much about sweeteners and your children.
Unless you’re a rat, the evidence doesn’t show much of an issue after all.
You can now listen to Gid on the Sensationalist Science podcast for your weekly dose of scientific shenanigans and media muddling: