Are Artificial Sweeteners a Good Alternative to Sugar? A Harvard Medical School Professor Replies

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A Harvard professor discusses whether artificial sweeteners are healthier than real sugar.

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Is switching from sugar to artificial sweeteners a good trade? Dr. David S. Ludwig answers that question in the December 2011 issue of the Harvard Health Letter, which features eight Q & As by Harvard faculty and members of the Health Letter’s editorial board.

Most people consume artificial sweeteners to help them lose weight, and short-term studies suggest that they may have that effect, notes Dr. Ludwig, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston. But other research raises concerns that artificial sweeteners actually promote weight gain. How so? These sugar substitutes are extremely sweet, Ludwig explains, so they may desensitize people to sweetness. As a result, nutritious, filling foods that aren’t as sweet—such as fruits and vegetables—may lose their appeal. Calories that were subtracted from the diet in the sweetener-for-sugar swap may sneak back in, in the form of refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats.

“In addition, some recent research has identified sweetness receptors in fat tissue,” Dr. Ludwig says in the Health Letter. “We don’t know for sure, but that raises the possibility that artificial sweeteners could cause weight gain by directly stimulating the development of new fat cells.”
His research group at Children’s Hospital Boston is conducting a year-long randomized clinical trial looking at how artificially sweetened drinks affect weight and risk factors for heart disease in comparison with sugar-sweetened and unsweetened drinks.

Read the full-length Q&A: “Are artificial sweeteners a good alternative to sugar?”

Other questions answered in the December issue of the Health Letter include:

  •     Why is poultry a healthy protein?
  •     Is it okay to keep taking Ambien for my sleep problems?
  •     Why did I wait so long in the emergency department?
  •     Should I worry about the health effects of bisphenol A?
  •     Which is better for macular degeneration, Avastin or Lucentis?
  •     What is gastroparesis and how can it be treated?
  •     Is Pradaxa, the alternative to warfarin, safe and effective?

The Harvard Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $29 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at Raquel_Schott(at)hms(dot)harvard(dot)edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

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