Researchers say misunderstanding still surrounds artificial sweeteners.
According to a new study from Liverpool Hope University, a large number of people are avoiding artificial sweeteners in the mistaken belief that they are harmful to health.
Many available ‘artificial’ sweeteners contain fewer calories than sugar and can also help maintain blood sugar levels, which are crucial factors when it comes to warding off weight gain and diabetes.
These ‘non-nutritive sweeteners’ or ‘low-calorie sweeteners’ are often used as an alternative to traditional sugar, including by people with type 2 diabetes who may consider these products as part of their self-management of the condition.
Dr Grace Farhat, Lecturer in Food Science and Nutrition at Hope, who led a national survey, recently published in Nutrients, is calling for an education campaign to improve the reputation of non-nutritive sweeteners in order to get more people making the sugar-sweetener swap.
Dr Farhat said: “The benefits of non-nutritive sweeteners outweigh the harmful effects of sugars.
“Yet sweeteners have gained a poor reputation over the years and it’s really important to educate consumers and health practitioners about these sweeteners, and how there’s now a real consensus among experts as to the benefits.
“Crucially, sweeteners have been shown to help control weight and glucose compared to sugars. It’s something that could contribute to lowering the obesity and diabetes epidemic when used as alternatives to sugar.
“And what’s also important is to tell people that ‘artificial’ doesn’t mean harmful.”
Attitudes towards sweeteners were revealed through an online survey of almost 1,600 adults in the UK, with participants recruited through various social media platforms.
The study also revealed some widespread worries and concerns about sweeteners.
Many agreed with statements suggesting sweeteners are bad for health (41%)’, “cause people to gain weight” (30%) and could even contribute to cancer (33%).
Researchers highlighted the problem of misinformation around artificial sweeteners
Dr Farhat said these views are not supported by recent evidence - and 30-year-old research that once claimed a link between cancer and sweeteners has been roundly debunked and disproved by modern science.
Dr Farhat said: “It is important to note that the original cancer research in particular involved testing on animals, not humans.”
Meanwhile almost half disagreed with the statement “I think artificial sweeteners are absolutely safe for health”.
Dr Farhat, who is registered with the UK Association for Nutrition, adds: “There’s no scientific evidence which supports the fear surrounding sweeteners.
“Such worries are unsubstantiated - and which is why we need consumer education to try and combat these concerns.”
The Liverpool Hope University research found that older people in particular were concerned about the supposed harmful effects of sweeteners, while those aged between 25 and 34 were the least worried.
To combat misinformation surrounding sweeteners people in the UK need to be better informed.
In the second part of the survey, participants were given up-to-date scientific information about sweeteners which explored their benefits.
Dr Farhat added: “Although our survey does not provide enough data for us to be able to know how people might change their consumption habits over a long period of time, we showed that even sharing simple information with them helped to improve the reputation of sweeteners.
“And if we can share this information much more widely, particularly through social media or a leaflet campaign, it could really help convey the right message to consumers.
“Knowledge and awareness about the safety of sweeteners is essential.”
Dr Farhat said this knowledge and information could be shared through a wide variety of means, from government health agencies and regulatory bodies to improved food packaging: “Social media is the most powerful tool, but the social media message needs to come from a trusted authority or regulatory body, such as the NHS, in order to convey the message.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but over time we can help change opinions.
“I’d also argue that now is a good time to begin this process. People have significantly gained weight during the pandemic.
“It might be a good idea for such people to control their energy intake. And sugars in snacks are consumed the most.
“While long-term studies on sweeteners are still ongoing, we have substantial evidence to establish their beneficial role on glucose control, appetite and weight.”
Read the report in Nutrients
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