Artificial sweeteners are considered as ideal alternatives to sugar because they contain less calories. Many people believe that using them to sweeten food and beverages may actually help people lose weight by consuming less calories overall. But a recent study by researchers from Yale University indicates that using artificial sweeteners may even sabotage a person’s weight loss efforts.
A team of researchers led by Professor Ivan de Araujo conducted a study that suggests using artificial sweeteners may cause people to seek high calorie sweets later on as a result of a newly discovered signal in the brain. The study implies that it is difficult to trick the brain into giving it artificial sweeteners that are void of calories. According to the researchers, our body’s pleasure in consuming sweet treats is driven in part by the amount of energy sugars provide. They discovered that sugar attributes greater reward in the brain as compared to consuming artificial sweeteners.
The team identified a particular physiological brain signal is important in the choice between consuming sugars or artificial sweeteners. The signal regulates the body’s dopamine levels, a chemical responsible for the reward signaling in the brain. The researchers found out that the signal only arises when sugar is further broken down into a form where it becomes usable as fuel for the cells in the body. The study was conducted on mice with the use of behavioral testing combinations involving sugars and artificial sweeteners. The researchers also recorded and measured the chemical responses in the brain circuits attributed to reward.
For the findings of the study, Professor de Araujo stated, “According to the data, when we apply substances that interfere with a critical step of the ‘sugar-to-energy pathway’, the interest of the animals in consuming artificial sweetener decreases significantly, along with important reductions in brain dopamine levels. This is verified by the fact that when hungry mice – who thus have low sugar levels – are given a choice between artificial sweeteners and sugars, they are more likely to completely switch their preferences towards sugars even if the artificial sweetener is much sweeter than the sugar solution.”
Based on the results, the researchers believe that taking artificial sweeteners and other low calorie sweet alternatives in a state of hunger and exhaustion will more likely trigger a craving in people to choose high-calorie food or beverage in the future. The team has discovered that dopamine cells are critical to determining the choice people may have between sweetener or sugar. They will be conducting further studies to identify the associated signal pathways and receptors in the brain that influence the consumption of sweets. The findings of the study are published in the Journal of Physiology.