Not so Sweet Revenge: Unanticipated Consequences of High-Intensity Sweeteners

Behav Anal. 2015 Mar 12;38(1):1-17. doi: 10.1007/s40614-015-0028-3. eCollection 2015 May.


While no single factor accounts for the significant increases in overweight and obesity that have emerged during the past several decades, evidence now suggests that sugars, in general, and sugar-sweetened beverages, in particular, may be especially problematic. One response to this concern has been an explosion in the availability and use of noncaloric sweeteners as replacements for sugar. While consumers have been led to believe that such substitutes are healthy, long-term epidemiological data in a number of cohorts have documented increased risk for negative outcomes like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke among users of artificial sweeteners. Experimental data from animals has provided several plausible mechanisms that could explain this counterintuitive relationship. In particular, my research has demonstrated that artificial sweeteners appear to interfere with basic learned, predictive relations between sweet tastes and post-ingestive consequences such as the delivery of energy. By interfering with these relations, artificial sweeteners inhibit anticipatory responses that normally serve to maintain physiological homeostasis, and over the long term, this interference could result in negative health effects like those seen in the human cohort studies. These data suggest that reducing the consumption of all sweeteners is advisable to promote better health.

Keywords: Artificial sweeteners; Classical conditioning; Health; Obesity.