Over the past few decades, food science and technology have offered innovative solutions such as low calorie sweeteners to help people enjoy sweetness without the calories. With overweight and obesity becoming a dominant health problem worldwide, the need to decrease our energy intake and manage energy balance is critical and low calorie sweeteners have an important role to play.
Low calorie sweeteners are a useful tool in energy reduction and management, as they provide a simple way of reducing the amount of calories in our diet without affecting the enjoyment of sweet tasting foods and drinks. They have a very high sweetening power compared to sugars, so that they can be used in minute amounts to confer the desired level of sweetness to foods and drinks, while contributing very little or no energy at all to the final product. Studies show that replacing foods and drinks in the diet with light or diet versions containing low calorie sweeteners as part of a balanced, calorie controlled programme can result in an overall reduced calorie intake.
What the science shows
The vast literature in this field is reviewed periodically and evidence from human studies, primarily randomised controlled trials (RCTs), supports that the use of low calorie sweeteners can indeed reduce total energy intake. On the contrary, human data does not support the hypothesis that sweetness without calories cause energy compensation.
In 2016, a systematic review and meta-analysis by Rogers et al concluded that the balance of evidence indicates that use of low calorie sweeteners in place of sugar, in children and adults, leads to reduced energy intake and body weight, and possibly also when compared with water. These findings support previous findings as stated by Mattes and Popkin in a 2009 review publication, which concluded that longer-term feeding trials exploring the effects of substitution of low calorie sweeteners for nutritive sweeteners in the diet suggest that energy compensation is incomplete, resulting in 5–15% reductions of daily energy intake. Similarly, another older review by De La Hunty published in 2006 concluded that the use of low calorie sweeteners, as opposed to sugar, actually induced a decrease in daily energy intake and facilitated weight loss.
Examining the acute effects of low calorie sweeteners on subsequent energy intake, a number of studies has shown that changing the energy density of a food does not result in an accurate compensation in energy intake at subsequent meals. For example, in a 2010 study by Anton et al, participants did not compensate by eating more at either their lunch or dinner meal when they consumed lower calorie preloads containing stevia or aspartame compared to when they consumed higher calorie preloads containing sucrose. In other words, even after a lower calorie preload, food intake at subsequent lunch and dinner meals was not increased and discretionary food intake did not differ between the conditions. Other studies suggest that compensation may not occur even over relatively long time periods. In a 10-week period intervention (Sorensen et al, 2014), the group consuming low calorie sweetened foods and beverages had lower energy intake compared to the group consuming sucrose-sweetened food and beverages. Similarly in children, the DRINK study, a randomised clinical trial, showed that no “compensation” appeared for the absence of energy from the low calorie sweetened drink. (De Ruyter et al 2012)