Artificial Sweeteners Sour the Stats

Artificial sweetener research shows widespread bias and overstated health benefits.

Why would the artificial sweetener industry tell you the truth if it turned out that their products weren't so healthy after all?

A study from the University of Sydney found that industry-funded research into artificial sweeteners showed widespread bias, resulting in favorable results that could mislead consumers.

"It's alarming to see how much power the artificial sweetener industry has over the results of its funded research, with not only the data, but also the conclusions of these studies emphasizing artificial sweeteners' positive effects while neglecting mention of any drawbacks,” study co-author Lisa Bero, PhD, said in a press release.

Dr. Bero, who was originally trained as a pharmacologist and now studies research bias, is a professor of pharmacy at the University of Sydney and head of the Charles Perkins Centre's bias node.

Dr. Bero and team analyzed 31 studies into artificial sweeteners conducted between 1978 and 2014. The reviews included both potential benefits of artificial sweeteners as well as harmful effects.

The researchers found that studies funded by the artificial sweetener industry were 17 times more likely to show favorable results.

Approximately 42 percent of study authors did not disclose financial conflicts of interest, and one-third of the studies did not disclose their funding sources at all. Studies in which authors had a potential conflict of interest were close to seven times more likely to have favorable conclusions about artificial sweeteners.

In nine studies in which the authors did not have conflicts of interest, none had favorable results. However, four studies funded by competitor companies that sell sugary drinks or bottled water also had negative findings, indicating that it's not just the artificial sweetener industry that may be influencing research results.

"Ultimately it is consumers who lose out from this practice because our findings show that the results of reviews on the health benefits of artificial sweeteners cannot always be trusted," Dr. Bero said in the press release. "Measures to eliminate sponsor influence on nutrition research are desperately needed."

The study was published in the September issue of PloS One.

No outside funding was provided for the study and none of the authors reported a conflict of interest.