Background: Food products containing non-nutritive sweeteners (NNSs) instead of sugar have become increasingly popular in the last decades. Their appeal is obviously related to their calorie-free sweet taste. However, with the dramatic increase in their consumption, it is reasonable and timely to evaluate their potential health benefits and, more importantly, potential adverse effects. The main aim of this scoping review was to map the evidence about health outcomes possibly associated with regular NNS consumption by examining the extent, range, and nature of research activity in this area.
Methods: We systematically searched Ovid MEDLINE, EMBASE and the Cochrane CENTRAL databases for studies on NNSs (artificial sweeteners or natural, non-caloric sweeteners, either used individually or in combination) using text terms with appropriate truncation and relevant indexing terms. All human studies investigating any health outcomes of a NNS intervention or exposure were eligible for inclusion. No studies were excluded based on language, study design or methodological quality. Data for each health outcome were summarized in tabular form and were discussed narratively.
Results: Finally, we included 372 studies in our scoping review, comprising 15 systematic reviews, 155 randomized controlled trials (RCTs), 23 non-randomized controlled trials, 57 cohort studies, 52 case-control studies, 28 cross sectional studies and 42 case series/case reports. In healthy subjects, appetite and short term food intake, risk of cancer, risk of diabetes, risk of dental caries, weight gain and risk of obesity are the most investigated health outcomes. Overall there is no conclusive evidence for beneficial and harmful effects on those outcomes. Numerous health outcomes including headaches, depression, behavioral and cognitive effects, neurological effects, risk of preterm delivery, cardiovascular effects or risk of chronic kidney disease were investigated in fewer studies and further research is needed. In subjects with diabetes and hypertension, the evidence regarding health outcomes of NNS use is also inconsistent.
Conclusions: This scoping review identifies the needs for future research to address the numerous evidence gaps related to health effects of NNSs use.It also specifies the research questions and areas where a systematic review with meta-analyses is required for the proper evaluation of health outcomes associated to regular NNSs consumption.
Keywords: Artificial sweetener; Aspartame; Cancer; Dental caries; Diabetes; Non-nutritive sweetener; Obesity; Overweight; Saccharin; Scoping review; Stevia; Weight gain.