Tackling health challenges

The International Sweeteners Association recently hosted over 120 delegates at its scientific conference in Brussels titled “Why low calories count: the effective use of low calorie sweeteners in today’s diet and lifestyle choices”.

Uniting a multidisciplinary group of speakers, the ISA conference was an opportunity to share knowledge on the latest research in the fields of obesity, physical activity, appetite and food choices. The conference addressed the role low calorie sweeteners can play in tackling the rising global obesity epidemic and the increase in type 2 diabetes.

The conference was moderated by Jacki Davis, leading commentator and analyst on European Union affairs, and Dr Roberto Bertollini opened the conference by highlighting the reality of Europe’s health challenges providing some statistics and future trends for the global obesity rates.
Then, professor Anne Raben, human nutrition expert at the faculty of science of the University of Copenhagen, gave a keynote address looking at the role of low calorie sweeteners as an effective tool in weight management. “If the current trend for increasing obesity and weight gain continues by 2020 half the population of the US will either have diabetes or be in a pre-diabetic state,” she warned. Europe is not doing much better. “Currently 31 million people in the EU need treatment for diabetes, and if they continue to follow the US where increasing obesity is matched by increasing cases type 2 diabetes (T2D) the situation can only get worse.”
She noted that the most serious consequence of diabetes is a three to four times increased risk of cardiovascular disease. By 2050 33% of the EU population could have T2D. Preventing that happening is essential, which is why it is now essential to quash the myths about low calorie sweeteners.

Scientific studies

“There is a belief that low calorie sweeteners will make you fat by increasing your appetite for sweet foods, ” Raben said. “But the belief that people will overcompensate for the calories they save when using low calorie sweeteners is unfounded. There are no scientific studies to support the early studies from the 1980s that suggested this might be the case. No studies in the last 25 to 30 years have confirmed this. Neither have hypotheses that low calorie sweeteners provoke hunger and cause overeating, or that they do not satisfy the appetite leading to compensatory eating at the next meals, been proved. These mechanisms were considered again in studies in 2009 and 2012 but rejected.”
Prof Raben’s studies have shown that the opposite is true – users of low calorie sweeteners show no weight gain over time. In a ‘gold standard’ randomised controlled trial participants randomly given beverages sweetened with containing low calorie sweeteners for a 10 week period either, stayed the same weight, or showed slight weight loss. The finding surprised us as they were the opposite of what theorists who criticise low calorie drinks surmise.
“If we disregard the science that shows that low calorie sweeteners are an important tool in controlling obesity and T2D, we miss an important tool in weight control and obesity regulation.” she concluded.

In-built sweet taste

Our in-built taste for sweet foods helped keep us healthy in early human evolution because it indicated the presence of vitamins and minerals in foods, explained professor Hely Tuorila, of the Department of Food Sciences at Helsinki University. ”The problem today is that the amount of sweet food we eat has grown out of proportion with the rest of our diet.”
She noted that liking for sweetness in food and drink also varies between food cultures. Comparisons between Australia and Japan, for example, show Australian consumers prefer their breakfast cereal sweeter than Japanese consumers who in turn prefer much sweeter orange juice than Australian consumers. “About 50% of our liking for sweet food and drinks is attributable to genetic traits, about the same level of heritability as personality traits or asthma,” she said. “Living without sweet food and drink is difficult because of its biological, psychological and social role in our lives.”
Food culture might influence our preferred intensity of sweetness in food and drink, but for some people a genetic ‘sweet tooth’ makes it much harder to live without sweetness. “For those people in particular low calorie sweeteners are especially useful,” concluded Tuorila.

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