Researchers said a sweettasting, lower-calorie drink can trigger a greater metabolic response than drinks with higher calories, explaining an association between artificial sweeteners and diabetes. "Calories are only half of the equation; sweet taste perception is the other half", Small said in a university news release.
"They may be free of calories but not of consequences and diabetes is only one of them".
"A calorie is not a calorie", said senior author Dana Small, professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. In nature, sweetness signals the presence of energy and its intensity reflects the amount of energy present. As sweeter substances contain more energy, the human body has evolved to burn more calories if something is sweet in taste.
When a "mismatch" occurs, the brain's reward circuits don't register that calories have been consumed, the researchers said. The amount of energy burned by the body was also monitored.
The study, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that sweetness helps to determine how calories are metabolised and signalled to the brain. This might lead to the consumption of more food.
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They found when there was a "mismatch" between sweetness and calories - as is often the case with diet drinks or foods because they are not as sugary - the calories fail to trigger the body's metabolism. During ingestion, these calories will not get properly digested, and so, they are stored or processed later, interfering with metabolism and leading to weight gain.
For the new study, scientists scanned the brains of 15 people when they were drinking diet drinks, and compared them to regular beverages.
Diet drinks and meals could cause people to put on weight and trigger diabetes even when they are low-calorie.
"The statement that a calorie is not a calorie is gobbledegook", said Tom Sanders, Professor emeritus of Nutrition and Dietetics, at King's College London.