Artificial sweeteners fail to fool the brain

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I’ve been attempting to catch up on some reading over the last few days, and this included skimming through the last couple of copies of New Scientist magazine. One article that caught my eye from the late December/early January issue concerned the effect of artificial sweeteners. In particular, the piece (by San Francisco-based writer Douglas Fox) makes the point that while artificial sweeteners may taste sweet, they fail to ‘satisfy’ the brain like sugar does. It is this mechanism that may explain, at least in part, the findings of some studies which find artificial sweeteners may cause individuals to consume more subsequently. And it might also help to explain why there really is no good evidence that artificial sweeteners promote weight loss.

The idea that artificial sweeteners may fail to trigger ‘satisfaction centres’ in the brain was the subject of a study I reported on in a blog back in September.

One of the studies cited in the New Scientist piece was covered in my blog [1]. This study found that in women given solutions containing either sucrose (sugar) or sucralose (Splenda) to drink, sugar activated the regions of the brain involved in registering pleasure more extensively than sucralose.

However, the piece also reported the results of an as yet unpublished study, which was similarly interesting. According to the New Scientist piece, the research, conducted by Paul Smeets at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, gave individuals a soft drink sweetened either with sugar or a blend of aritificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, cyclamate and acesulfame potassium). Both drinks activated the brain, but only the one containing sugar caused part of the brain associated with reward (the caudate nucleus) to ‘light up’.

Here again, it seems, we have evidence that the brain can’t necessarily be fooled into thinking it’s had something it hasn’t (sugar). It seems the tongue can register sweetness from artificial sweeteners that does not transmit to the brain.

This, however, is not to say that sugar is somehow a great option either. It most certainly is not. And so what are our options? To my mind, the healthiest approach is not to have either refined sugar or artificial sweeteners. Now, some of us may view doing without sweet foods like some sort of hell on earth. This, in some ways, bears testament just to how addictive sweetness can be for some. And while many of us think of having a ‘sweet tooth’ as being something that is inherent within us, my experience is that this is not the case.

I have seen countless individuals break their addiction with sweetness. I explored this idea in a recent blog.

Quite often, a sweet tooth is rooted in chemical upset, for example unstable blood sugar levels. For advice on biochemically-based approaches to quelling sweet cravings, see here.


1. Frank GK, et al. Sucrose activates human taste pathways differently from artificial sweetener. Neuroimage. 2008;39(4):1559-69)

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