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Low-calorie sweeteners – also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes – contain few, if any, calories but deliver a greater intensity of sweetness than sweeteners with calories. They are ubiquitous in the Western diet, appearing in beverages, baked goods, frozen desserts, chewing gum, and many other foods. A new study demonstrates that consuming low-calorie sweeteners in tandem with carbohydrate-rich foods alters brain function and impairs metabolism.

The health effects of consuming low-calorie sweeteners are not well understood. Whereas some evidence suggests that substituting sugar-sweetened beverages with low-calorie sweeteners can aid in weight loss, other studies suggest that low-calorie sweeteners may contribute to weight gain and diabetes risk, especially in men.

This study involved 45 healthy adults who did not regularly consume low-calorie sweeteners. Over a period of 10 days, each of the participants drank seven 12-ounce beverages that contained sucralose (a low-calorie sweetener), sugar, or a combination of sucralose and maltodextrin (a polysaccharide produced from grain starch). Before and after the study period, participants underwent oral glucose tolerance tests, sensory tests, and neuroimaging to assess insulin sensitivity, taste perception, and brain response to taste, respectively.

The authors of the study found that drinking the beverage sweetened with the sucralose-maltodextrin combination reduced the participants' insulin sensitivity and altered their brain responses to sweet tastes. These findings suggest that consuming low-calorie sweeteners while eating or drinking high carbohydrate foods or beverages may have negative effects on metabolism.

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