How fake sugar can lead to overeating | Science News for Students

How fake sugar can lead to overeating

New study shows artificial sweetener can trick the brain into eating more
Aug 12, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
artificial sweeteners

These popular fake sugars pass right through the body, making them calorie-free. But eating them may trick the body into thinking it’s starving, a new study finds. This may encourage people to overeat.

Bukowsky18/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

People trying to lose weight may turn to fake sugars — or foods that contain them. But these sugar substitutes have provoked controversy in the past few years. One reason: Studies have shown that they can actually boost someone’s appetite. A new study now confirms that — and points to why.

In the new study, scientists showed that eating a popular artificial sweetener made fruit flies and mice hungrier. This study is important because “nobody really knew” what happened in the brain or elsewhere to fuel that hunger, says Herbert Herzog. He works at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia. As a neuroscientist, he studies how the brain works. In the new study, his team shows how the brain responds to a diet that contains artificial sugar. If people respond the same way — and Herzog’s team thinks they will — long term consumption of fake sugar could encourage people to overeat.

The new findings appear in the July 12 issue of Cell Metabolism.

Confusing the brain’s calorie-counter

The researchers fed a diet of natural sugar and yeast to two groups of fruit flies. One group ate nothing else. The other group also got a bonus. For five days, its diet was sweetened even more with sucralose. This is the fake sugar sold under the name Splenda.

On day 6, the second group went back to eating meals of only sugar and yeast. Throughout the day, the scientists carefully measured how much each group of flies ate. Fruit flies who had recently been eating the artificial sweetener now ate 30 percent more than the flies that had eaten the normal diet all along. However, a few days after sucralose was removed from the diet of those flies, they returned to eating normal amounts of food.

To understand how sucralose works, the researchers disabled some genes in the fruit flies. The genes they knocked out play a huge role in determining how much and what types of foods an organism eats. Afterward, they fed these flies food laced with sucralose. Flies with the disabled gene did not overeat. This showed that the fake sugar must have messed up the action of the healthy genes, causing their hosts to overeat.

The new data suggest that when these genes don't work properly, the brain gets a bit confused. The flies’ brains have evolved to associate food that is sweet with a particular number of calories. The sweeter something is, the more calories it tends to have. But with fake sugars, the sweet taste comes with no calories. “When you take artificial sweeteners, the brain somehow gets fooled for a short period of time,” says Herzog. “But then it realizes that there are no calories coming in.” Because it can no longer trust its sweet meter to gauge how many calories are on the way, the brain starts to behave as if the animal is starving. And this urges that animal — here, a fruit fly — to grab more food.

The scientists were also curious to see if the same thing would happen in mammals. So they repeated the experiment in mice. They again fed some a diet with sucralose for a week. And compared to those not getting the fake sugar, these mice consumed more food after that artificial sugar was taken out of their food.

People’s brains and bodies are more complex than flies and mice. Still, Herzog expects this trend to occur in people as well. And that could spell trouble for potential dieters. Indeed, he notes, “Most people are not aware that they are eating artificial sweeteners in processed foods.” He thinks people need to be more aware that fake sugars may have unintended effects, including tricking the brain into wanting to eat more.

Terry Davidson works at American University in Washington D.C. This neuroscientist studies how the brain regulates what people eat. Davidson, who was not involved with this study, says the new findings add to “serious concerns about the widespread use of artificial sweeteners.” Considering the results of this and other studies, he concludes that “the best advice for most people may be to avoid starting the use of artificial sweeteners.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

appetite    A desire to eat or drink, often because of hunger.

artificial sweetener    A chemical substance that has a sweet taste but few or no calories. People and food manufacturers add artificial sweeteners to foods and drinks to give them a sweeter taste. Many different artificial sweeteners exist. They include saccharin, sucralose and aspartame, among others.

calorie    The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. It is typically used as a measurement of the energy contained in some defined amount of food.

evolve    (adj. evolving) To change gradually over a long period of time. In living organisms, evolution usually involves random changes to genes that will then be passed along to an individual’s offspring. These can lead to new traits, such as altered coloration, new susceptibility to disease or protection from it, or different shaped features (such as legs, antennae, toes or internal organs). Nonliving things may also be described as evolving if they change over time. For instance, the miniaturization of computers is sometimes described as these devices evolving to smaller, more complex devices.

fake sugar    Another name for artificial sweetener.

fruit flies    Tiny flies belonging to the species Drosophila melanogaster. Scientists often use these short-lived animals as a “guinea pig” for lab studies because they are easy to grow, can mature into adults in a short time and their bodies share many of the same traits and responses as more complex animals — including mammals.

neuroscience    Science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

processed foods    Foods purchased from a grocery story that are substantially different from the raw materials that went into them. Examples include most foods that come in cans, bottles, boxes or bags. Examples include breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, canned tuna, jars of spaghetti sauce and dill pickles.

sucralose    An artificial sugar sold under the brand name Splenda (among other brands). Sucralose is much sweeter than sucrose.

yeast   One-celled fungi that can ferment carbohydrates (like sugars), producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. They also play a pivotal role in making many baked products rise.


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Q Wang et al. Sucralose promotes food intake through NPY and a neuronal fasting response. Cell Metabolism. Vol. 24, July 12, 2016, p. 75. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.06.010.

Further Reading

S. Ornes. “Candy on the brain.” Science News for Students. June 11, 2012.

E. Sohn. “Sweeeet! The skinny on sugar substitutes.” Science News for Students. January 9, 2008.