Millions of people across the United States consume the little pink, yellow, and blue packets that sweeten coffees, teas, diet drinks, and other beverages. Their low-calorie and no-calorie perks (and sometimes taste) are the reason why people sprinkle the sugar-mimic into their drinks — but is it actually working? UK researchers from the University of Bristol examined all available science on artificial sweeteners, also known as low energy sweeteners (LES), in order to definitively determine if its use helps people to cut calories and lose weight. The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, is the largest study comparing how LES works on both children and adults.

For the study, researchers looked at 240 different long and short term human studies and an additional 90 animal studies that included artificial sweeteners like saccharine, aspartame, sucralose, and stevia. None of the diets were calorie-restrictive, and were only changed by incorporating artificial sweeteners into the diet. Some of the studies compared the use of artificial sweeteners to regular table sugar, while other studies compared artificial sweeteners to water.

They found when artificial sweeteners replaced sugar from the diet, children and adults reduced their calories and lost weight. When beverages were sweetened with artificial sweeteners and replaced a person’s water intake, according to the findings, they cut more calories and lost more weight. The research team believes this indicates artificial sweeteners do not increase a person’s appetite or desire for real sugar. The average American consumes 350 calories from added sugars, which is more than double the amount for a man, and triple the amount of a woman’s daily recommended intake.  

Cutting out a few hundred calories a day will lead to a certain level of weight loss or maintenance, but artificial sweeteners have been under scrutiny for decades. According to Harvard School of Public Health, artificially-sweetened beverages were linked with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and have been shown to affect the body’s ability to gauge how many calories are being consumed. Some studies have even shown artificial sweeteners affect the brain differently than sugar.

"We believe that we should shift the question from whether LES are 'good' or 'bad,'" explained the study’s lead author Peter Rogers, a professor from the University of Bristol, in a press release, "and rather focus on how they should be best used in practice to help in the achievement of specific public health goals, such as the reduction of intakes of free sugars and energy."

While artificial sweetener brands like Equal, Sweet’N Low, and Splenda remain largely under debate by the medical community, because they were chemically created in a lab to mimic sugar’s sweet taste, people looking to lose weight could turn to a natural and relatively new sweetener. Truvia is a natural, no-calorie sweetener, which gets its sweetness extracted from the stevia plant. It’s had a long and successful history in South America, and has become a popular addition to Western cuisine. Being 300 times sweeter than sugar, Stevia's sales demonstrate its ability to satisfy Americans’ voracious sweet tooth.

Source: Rogers PJ, Hogenkamp PS, de Graaf C, et al. Does low-energy sweetener consumption affect energy intake and body weight? A systematic review, including meta-analyses, of the evidence from human and animal studies. International Journal of Obesity. 2015.