Many watching their waistlines opt for low-calorie sugar alternatives like Splenda and Sweet ‘n’ Low in the hope it will help them stay slim.
A study of more than 5,000 people by the University of South Australia (UniSA) suggests, however, those who eat artificial sweeteners weigh more than sugar consumers.
The scientists worry sugar substitutes like the controversial aspartame may change gut bacteria, prompting weight gain.
Sweeteners could also make people think they are dodging calories, giving them “permission” to overindulge in sugary treats.
Aspartame has been hitting headlines since its US approval in 1981.
The European Food Safety Authority ruled it safe for human consumption in 2013, however, animal studies have linked it to everything from depression and seizures to Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Supporters argue it gives the same sweet taste at much lower quantities than sugar, discouraging overeating and subsequent weight gain.
Consumption of artificial sweeteners has risen by 200% among children and 54% in adults over the past 20 years, the UniSA scientists claim.
To learn more about its effects, the team looked at the eating habits and health of thousands of adults over a seven-year period.
Results, published in the journal Current Atherosclerosis Reports, suggest those who ate the most artificial sweeteners weighed more than the participants who never consumed them.
“Consumers of artificial sweeteners do not reduce their overall intake of sugar,” lead author Professor Peter Clifton said.
“They use both sugar and low-calorie sweeteners, and may psychologically feel they can indulge in their favourite foods.
“Artificial sweeteners also change the gut bacteria, which may lead to weight gain and risk of type 2 diabetes.”
The scientists claim 13 studies have investigated the link between artificial sweeteners and type 2 diabetes specifically.
Results reportedly show either no link or suggest the sugar substitutes may trigger the condition.
One study even found swapping artificially-sweetened drinks for sugary ones or juices reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 7%.
“A better option than low-calorie sweeteners is to stick to a healthy diet, which includes plenty of whole grains, dairy, seafood, legumes, vegetables and fruits, and plain water,” Professor Clifton said.
The scientists stress, however, longer studies looking into the consumption of artificial sweeteners are required to uncover its potential effects on blood sugar control.