Are artificial sweeteners safe? Are sugar free sweeteners harmful or helpful?

Are artificial sweeteners safe? Are sugar free sweeteners harmful or helpful?

According to most people, sugar is the enemy.  Sugar has long been blamed for the obesity epidemic, making our kids hyper, falling asleep on the job and just about everything else that is cause for a health concern.  With that it is no wonder that artificial and/or zero calorie sweeteners have found their way into a vast majority of supermarket shelves, replacing sugar wherever possible.  These substitutes came along and provided consumers with the sweet taste they were looking for, without the additional calories from sugar.  It seemed like the advent of artificial sweeteners provided a solution to so many health concerns, and everyone seemed to join the band wagon.  From there it seems as though the market exploded.  

What started out as one calorie-free sweetener, Saccharin, has grown into a plethora of artificial sweeteners being used today.  Aspartane (marketed as NutraSweet or Equal), Sorbitol, Stevia, Sucralose (marketed as Splenda) and Truvia are just a few of the sweeteners that have grown in popularity.  Despite controversial studies on some of these products, consumers continue to purchase these items over and over again.  And every so often a new player winds up being used in everyday products in place of sugar. 

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At face value artificial sweeteners seem to provide a magical solution: providing a sweet taste without extra calories.  For those embarking on a weight loss journey this provides a whole new array of products that would have otherwise been forbidden.  Now people could still enjoy cookies, cakes, ice creams and desserts but without the extra calories that came from sugar.  Over time, even foods that were already healthy options, such as yogurt, offered varieties made with artificial sweeteners so that they can also be a part of this calorie conscious market.   It often seems impossible to find foods made with real sugar, as the low calorie, artificially sweetened kinds have taken over the supermarket.

For those with other health concerns, such as diabetes, this has also been a welcome addition.  Suddenly those who were limited with their sugar intake, can find an equally satisfying choice, without compromising their blood sugars.  Swapping out traditional high sugar foods for lower sugar or sugar-free items, seems at first glance to be a win-win all around.   

However, when we look closely at the artificial sweeteners, and understand how they truly work, it might not really be a winning situation.  There are many studies that show that just because there is less sugar and less calories, does not mean they are as great of an alternative as one might think.  

While those embarking on a weight loss journey often opt for options that have been made sweeter with zero calorie sugars, they might want to think again.  Many studies show that people who drink a lot of diet beverages tend to gain weight.  The reasons for this are not clear but there are a few theories.  While some theories look at the continuous cravings for sweet foods, another theory states people tend to think that since they had a diet beverage they can then have cake or since the cookies are sugar free, they can increase their portions.  So the end result is not always as easy to predict as one would assume.  The bottom line is that while someone might assume drinking a diet beverage over a sweetened drink will result in weight loss, this is not necessarily true. 

Sugar substitutes that are available in the market also tend to be much sweeter than regular sugar.  This then allows for people’s tastebuds to adjust to this higher, more intense sweetened taste. For example, Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, while Sucralose can be as much as 600 times sweeter.  When people consume these substitutes over time they tend to find other naturally sweet foods, like fruit, to no longer be palatable.  This often results in a greater consumption of other artificially sweetened food, which has less nutritional value then the foods previously eaten that might have bee more nutrient dense.  Another concern is that quite often people find that over time they start to require an even greater amount of the artificial sweetener to satisfy their sweet tooth.  For example, at first one packet of Equal in your coffee does the trick, and a few months later you find yourself reaching for two. 

Quite often there is also a mixed message between your stomach and your brain when it comes to hunger and feeling satisfied.  Studies with laboratory rats find that after being given artificially sweetened beverages, the rats are then scavenging for food. The theory is that while the body senses that sweets were consumed, there are no calories to truly satisfy the body's hunger.  Thus, the rats are hungrier than they were in the beginning.  This is something to think about for those who are truly trying to drop weight.

It is also important to look at the affect of the artificial sweeteners on blood glucose before stocking up on these foods.  Several studies show that the chemicals used in sugar substitutes may affect ones gut bacteria.  This can result in a spike in blood glucose, despite the use of a (non) sugar substitute.  For those with diabetes or struggling with obesity, this is something to explore.

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One other issue that should be considered is that most studies to date looked at consumption of artificial sweeteners on a more limited basis. Typically studies look at what might be less than 24 ounces of a diet drink or two servings of an artificially sweetened dessert.  Many people who use these sugar substitutes tend to take in more than that on a regular basis, thus far exceeding the amounts that have been studied.  For this reason, the outcomes of health concerns will not truly be understood, as this is beyond what has been examined.

So what is the bottom line; are artificial sweeteners healthy? Are they really a win-win when it comes to avoiding sugar?  The truth is that this is a loaded question.  While the artificial sweeteners technically might on the surface cut calories and still provide us with the satisfaction of meeting a sweet tooth, there are clearly more things to consider.   

It would be most advantageous to limit the amount we take in and remember that this is not the cure all for weight loss.  If we think about what foods make the most sense to choose with a sugar substitute, we can then take the time to see how our body reacts to them and to then look at our diet as a whole.  Only after we understand what else we are eating, what foods satisfy our taste buds and what we will get out of these substitutes can we truly understand if using artificial sweeteners are worth it at all.  Maybe then we will be better able to see that perhaps sugar is not the only enemy after all.  

Written by M Mittler, MS Registered Dietician

FB Note: To be clear, the issue isn't necessarily whether the product is "natural" or not (there are many things found in nature which are not at all safe to eat), it's how the zero calorie sugars may impact the body, metabolism, hunger, etc. Personally, we avoid artificial sweeteners entirely. I would rather sweeten with raw, local honey, organic maple syrup, fruit or even just plain raw sugar - I would take the extra calories before I would use a zero calorie "sugar" substance.  

Do you use sugar replacements? Which ones? What is your experience?