07/11/2012 08:26 am ET

Are Sugar Substitutes Healthy? Sometimes, According To American Heart Association

Sugar-free sweeteners may help people lose weight and maintain healthy blood sugar levels, according to a joint statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association.

That assertion contradicts the general consensus on calorie-free sugar substitutes within the health community, the research of which has mostly focused on the potential pitfalls of consuming such sweeteners. Drinking diet soda, for example, has been associated with a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, weight gain and even disordered glucose levels -- a precursor to diabetes and other aspects of metabolic syndrome.

But publishing in the journals Circulation and Diabetes Care, these experts explained that the sweeteners could play a role in lowering added sugar consumption and overall calorie consumption, helping many Americans to improve their overall diets. To be successful, of course, a person would need to be vigilant about not replacing the saved calories with another treat.

While the paper's authors admitted that there was very little research on the weight and metabolic outcomes of those who replaced sugar with no and low-calorie substitutes, they believed that judicious use of the replacements could have an effect: "NNS [non-nutritive sweeteners] could facilitate reductions in added sugars intake, thereby resulting in decreased total energy and weight loss/weight control, and promoting beneficial effects on related metabolic parameters," they wrote.