- A study suggests that artificial sweeteners could lead to depression
- The findings are preliminary, and experts suggest there needs to be more data
- READ MORE: I’m a dentist. This is why people should NOT quit sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners and ultra-processed foods may lead to depression, a study suggests.
Researchers at Harvard University and Mass General Brigham Hospital in Massachusetts evaluated the diets of more than 30,000 white, middle-aged women. About 7,000 were clinically diagnosed with depression.
The researchers suggested that consuming ultra-processed foods, such as grains, snacks, and ready-to-eat meals, could be to blame for depression. In addition, artificial sweeteners like aspartame- which the World Health Organization has deemed a possible carcinogen- were associated with higher rates.
However, experts have warned that there is not enough evidence to directly link the foods to depression.
The artificial sweetener aspartame, which is in drinks like Diet Coke, has been deemed a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization
The research letter, published in JAMA Wednesday, looked at more than 31,000 women aged 42 to 62. Researchers asked them to complete questionnaires about their eating habits every four years. It’s unclear how long they were evaluated for.
The researchers used two definitions for depression: strict and broad. Strict depression meant patients reported they were diagnosed with the condition by a doctor and regularly used antidepressants. Broad depression, on the other hand, meant patients had a clinical diagnosis and/or took antidepressants.
Of the 31,712 participants, 2,122 had strict depression, while 4,820 had broad depression.
The researchers suggested ultra-processed foods could lead to a greater likelihood of depression, though they aren’t sure why.
However, artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages were directly associated with a greater risk of depression by activating certain compounds in the brain. The researchers did not go into detail about this process.
Dr Duane Mellor, dietitian at Aston University in the UK, said: ‘Researchers speculate this might be due to compounds reaching the brain, this research provides no evidence to support this, and it could be that people who were living with depression may have chosen more sweetened drinks, rather than it being causal.’
Other researchers stated that while the findings are promising, more research is needed.
‘This study provides an insight into a potential role of artificial sweeteners in mental and physical health, but this needs to be confirmed through further research beyond observational data alone,’ Dr Sharmali Edwin Thanarajah, a neurologist in Germany, said.
The researchers said that their major limitation is that the study was performed only in women, most of whom were white, so the population was limited.
Additionally, those who had higher ultra-processed food intake had higher BMI, smoking rates, and rates of diabetes and hypertension. They were also less likely to exercise regularly. This means that these participants could have developed depression from a multitude of other factors.
The study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that processed foods could lead to adverse health effects.
A 2022 study published in the journal Neurology found that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption could raise the risk of dementia.
Additionally, a large cohort study in France would that the same increase in ultra-processed foods led to an increased risk of breast cancer.
A global comparative study published in Obesity Reviews showed that an increase in sales per capita of ultra-processed food and drink was associated with higher body mass index (BMI).
And a pair of studies from researchers in Spain and France found an association between consuming ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of early death.