Are they safe?
Can you use them instead of Sugar?
As you work to reduce sugar and/or calorie intake, it can be easy to turn to artificial sweeteners when wanting something sweet. You may have heard that that artificial sweeteners can help you lose weight, or that they’re good for people who need to balance their blood sugar in conditions like diabetes. Artificial sweeteners have zero calories, so it can be easy to assume they are safe – but are they?
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners were created in lab – in fact they were discovered accidentally when a scientist mistakenly heard the word “taste” instead of “test!” When he tasted the chemical they were working with, he found out it was very sweet. That is how sucralose was discovered. Since then, multiple other artificial sweeteners have been created. A list of those approved for use in the United States is listed below:
Where are Artificial Sweeteners Found?
Processed foods, especially those labeled as low-sugar, sugar-free, no sugar added, low-calorie, and low-fat. Examples include diet soda/drinks, cereal, canned fruit, jam/jelly, yogurt, ice cream, gum, toothpaste, sugar-free candy, cookies, and other desserts.
Helpful Tip: Read labels carefully! Look at the ingredient list for the names of the artificial sweeteners.
Potential Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
- Increased Appetite – when you eat something sweet, but it has no calories, your brain can get confused and think you need more food. Your brain naturally associates sweet taste with increased calories for energy, so if it doesn’t get that, it may send you hunger signals to eat more food – and it can come in the form of more cravings for sweet things!1
- Increased Sugar Cravings – some research shows that the more you are exposed to a specific taste, the more you will want that taste.2 Because artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar, they may increase your cravings for sweet things.
- Increased Risk of Disease – Recent research is showing evidence in both animals and humans that artificial sweeteners increase risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.3,4
- Weight Gain – some research shows that use of artificial sweeteners can actually cause weight gain and increased abdominal fat. 3,5
- Loss of Healthy Gut Bacteria – artificial sweeteners are now being linked to changes in the but microbiota – the balance friendly bacteria we need in our gut to help us digest and process our food. Artificial sweeteners modify the types of bacteria in your gut that can then lead to issues with blood sugar regulation and increased potential for developing type 2 diabetes.3
- Environmental Impacts – new research is showing that artificial sweeteners are ending up in our tap water, river water, and soil.6
- Artificial sweeteners pass through your body without being digested and we are now finding out that waste water treatment plants are not able to filter them out.6
- Cancer Risk – the research is very mixed on this issue and little research has been done in humans, but some artificial sweeteners have been shown to cause cancer in animal studies.7
When you need something sweet, the best option is to choose something naturally sweet like fruit. Apples, blueberries, and strawberries are naturally sweet and make a great snack!
Other options would include choosing natural, minimally processed sources of sugar like raw honey, pure maple syrup (not the highly processed table syrup), or molasses. If that’s not possible, choosing pure cane sugar or coconut sugar is probably a better alternative to artificial sweeteners. However, this isn’t a free
ticket to eat all the sugar you want! Any type of sugar will affect your blood sugar levels, so use sparingly!
- Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med. 2010;83(2):101-108.
- Liem DG, de Graaf C. Sweet and sour preferences in young children and adults: role of repeated exposure. Physiol Behav. 2004;83(3):421-doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.08.028
- Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature.
- Nettleton JA, Lutsey PL, Wang Y, Lima JA, Michos ED, Jacobs DR Jr. Diet soda intake and risk of incident metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Diabetes Care. 2009;32(4):688-694. doi:10.2337/dc08-1799
- Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obes Silver Spring Md. 2008;16(8):1894-1900. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.284
- Praveena SM, Cheema MS, Guo H-R. Non-nutritive artificial sweeteners as an emerging contaminant in environment: A global review and
risks perspectives. Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2019;170:699-707.
- Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/artificial-sweeteners-fact-sheet. Published August 18, 2005. Accessed March 3, 2019.