Obesity charity allegedly secretly takes money to promote artificial sweeteners

The National Obesity Forum is a charity dedicated, it claims, to raising awareness about the hazards of obesity and produce guidelines regarding its management. When one hears the name ‘National Obesity Forum’ and learns it was started by health professionals, it’s natural to imagine that this organisation is an independent body with genuine concerns about health at heart. While the top brass in the National Obesity Forum (NOF) may indeed be well meaning, the organisation is most certainly not independent. Below are screenshots of the NOF’s partners, as well as those who have funded its website and conferences:

Being in bed financially with companies who have supposed obesity solutions to sell represents a major conflict of interest. On the plus side, though, at least the NOF is transparent about the companies that fund it. Except that if this story is to believed, that’s not entirely the case.

Apparently, the NOF recently accepted £50,000 from Coca Cola to promote the value of artificial sweeteners in weight control. What is even more troubling about this is that the deal was allegedly brokered by NOF trustee Tam Fry, who a year ago was sharply critical of the British Government’s quite cosy relationship with food companies.

A major point of this post, though, is to review the evidence (or, rather, lack of it) supporting the use of artificial sweeteners for weight control.

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin offer sweetness with little or no calories, and would seem the obvious choice over sugar for those seeking to lose weight. However, to know for sure if artificial sweeteners have weight loss benefits, they would need to be subjected to what are known as ‘randomised controlled’ trials. These trials, often used to assess pharmaceuticals, are generally regarded as the gold standard trials for determining something’s effectiveness. Bearing in mind how much faith we’re asked to put in artificial sweeteners, one would imagine there’s plenty of evidence to support them.

Curiously, not one single randomised controlled trial assessing effects of artificial sweeteners on weight is to be found in the scientific literature.

One explanation for this is that such studies have not been done. Another is that such studies have been done, but have not been published. The practice of publishing welcome results, but ‘binning’ those that are not, leads to what is known as ‘publication bias’. This practice can give a very skewed version of reality. It’s hard to gauge whether publication bias has taken place in this area, but there’s a lot of money in artificial sweeteners, and it seems unlikely that one or more manufacturer would not seek evidence to prove their presumed benefits as weight loss aids.

Also, there is some evidence, albeit in animals, that suggests artificial sweeteners might actually contribute to obesity. In one study, rats were fed with either saccharin or sugar-sweetened yoghurt in conjunction with their normal diet [1]. Compared to those eating sugar-sweetened yoghurt, the rats eating saccharin-laced yoghurt consumed more calories and got fatter too. The authors of this study concluded that, “…using artificial sweeteners in rats resulted in increased caloric intake, increased body weight, and increased adiposity [fatness]”, adding that “These results suggest that consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners may lead to increased body weight and obesity by interfering with fundamental homeostatic, physiological processes”.

One potential explanation for this phenomenon relates to the ability of artificial sweeteners to stimulate the appetite. There is some evidence, for instance, that artificial sweeteners might do this through effects on the brain. In one study, women were given a solution containing either the artificial sweetener sucralose or sucrose (table sugar) [2]. The women were unable to distinguish the source of the sweetness on the basis of taste. However, it seems their brain knew the difference: sugar activated ‘pleasure centres’ in the brain more than sucralose. It seems an artificial sweetener may simply not give the level of pleasure and satisfaction derived from sugar. This, in theory, could lead individuals to seek satisfaction from other foods (i.e. eat more).

Some evidence shows that artificial sweeteners have the ability to stimulate the appetite. For example, one study found that women given saccharin-sweetened lemonade were found to consume considerably more calories overall compared to those drinking regular (sugary) lemonade [3]. In another study, experimenters found that subjects who had eaten yoghurt sweetened with saccharin were inclined to eat more than those who had eaten yoghurt sweetened with sugar [4]. There is other evidence which suggests that aspartame, too, has the capacity to stimulate the appetite [5]. Sugar-sweetened foods are far from ideal, but it does seem that artificially-sweetened ones are simply not a good alternative.

One other issue that I have with artificial sweeteners, even supposedly healthier and more natural ones such as stevia and xylitol, is that they perpetuate the expectation and ‘need’ for very sweet tastes. That’s a dependence I encourage people to lose.

As for the NOF, they could do with some independence too. How does this body hope to be taken seriously if it takes sneaky back-handers from industry to proomote ‘solutions’ with no proven benefit?


  1. Swithers SE, et al. A role for sweet taste: Calorie predictive relations in energy regulation by rats. Behavioral Neuroscience. 2008;122(1):161-173
  2. Frank GK, et al. Sucrose activates human taste pathways differently from artificial sweetener. Neuroimage 2008;39(4):1559-69
  3. Rogers PJ, et al. Separating the actions of sweetness and calories: effects of saccharin and carbohydrates on hunger and food intake in human subjects. Physiol Behav 1989;45:1093–99
  4. Lavin JH, et al. The Effect of Sucrose- and Aspartame-Sweetened Drinks on Energy Intake, Hunger and Food Choice of Female, Moderately Restrained Eaters. International Journal of Obesity 1997;21:37-42
  5. Tordoff MG, et al. Oral stimulation with aspartame increases hunger Physiol Behav 1990;47:555–59

5 Responses to Obesity charity allegedly secretly takes money to promote artificial sweeteners

  1. Chris 15 July 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    In the past when I have seen or heard Tam Fry offering his sound-bites and opinions to the media I have sensed a response in myself that, while not being entirely informed or rational, may hold some aversion to his views. I guess I had ‘thin-sliced’ some aspect of his presentation or content and had distrusted it on instinct.

    I heard a suggestion we may be programmed by nature to have quite reliable instinctive responses and to ‘see’ things in, erm, ‘things’, that might not be clearly presented. If one was out on the savannah or in some arboreal habitat and one saw a hint and flash of black and orange in proximity to the background colours of vegetation it is helpful if the brain thinks ‘tiger’ and ‘risk of being eaten alive’ without too much protracted and reasoned analysis.

    Commercial pressures are intensifying and it is increasingly more difficult for enterprises to return profits without manipulating the market in some way.

    Businesses built upon exploiting human weakness and preference for sweet food and beverages are trying to out compete rivals in an otherwise fairly mature (home) market with restricted opportunities for growth. So far as I can glean rising demand for sugar on the world market has resulted in price rises.

    I think artificial sweeteners are an economically expedient substitute (cheaper alternative) for sugar where the manufacturers are concerned, and this is a prime influence that results that they are almost endemic, not simply in ‘low-cal’ offerings, but in other lines too. Then as a secondary influence the industry sets about massaging consumers perceptions so that something of economic expediency (ie cheaper) for the industry (ie replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners) can be sold as being functionally expedient for the consumer.

    Just as a flash of black and orange in the visual cortex can stimulate conditioned concern for the possible presence of a tiger, your efforts, John, to illuminate the lengths some people will go to massage consumer perceptions to preserve or extend potential in markets, can heighten folks ability to sense the presence of some cynically placed agenda. There are times when it pays to be distrustful on purely instinctive grounds.

  2. MrAntiWeetabix 16 July 2011 at 12:06 am #

    I sometimes see these ‘obesity charity’ workers outside supermarkets. All you have to do is look at them, and see it’s not going to work!

    All on their plans it’s got junk…it needs to ALL be eliminated in my opinion, therefore the chance of failure is very little.

    What’s so hard about having a diet of fruits, vegetables, winter squashes, starchy roots all in there unproccessed forms? And if you have to ‘ Healthy grass fed meat’ which I don’t entirely agree with, but I’m not preaching.

    I heard a saying “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls who live under tyranny.”

  3. gill oliver 16 July 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    Well said MrAntiWeetabix.

  4. Lori 16 July 2011 at 10:01 pm #

    About a week ago, I wrote a post on the fact that several pharmaceutical companies that sponsor the American Diabetes Association and “research” that comes out with low-carb scare studies either depend on sales of diabetes drugs or have such drugs in the pipeline. Conflict of interest, anyone?

    I’ve added a link to this post to my post for further reading.


  5. Chris 12 August 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    the food and drinks industry periodical ‘The Grocer’ reports that the cost of sugar has risen from around 500 Euros per tonne to more than 800 Euros per tonne. (Link to The Grocer article online)

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