Just taking a quick look at the increasing obesity and sugar consumption trends shows that our amplifying preference for sweetness may be contributing to our nation’s most prevalent health problems. Consequently, in effort to provide consumers with a sweet-tasting product without the added calories and rapid blood sugar spikes, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved five different artificial sweeteners for use in products marketed and sold to the general population: aspartame, neotame, saccharin, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose. These substances are a hotly debated topic in the health and fitness realm. Each one provides a markedly sweeter taste than regular table sugar for much less or absolutely no calories! Sounds like a perfect solution, right? However, individuals who oppose the use of artificial sweeteners purport evidence suggesting that these substances might promote cancer development, weight gain, and a variety of other serious health complications. My objective here is to summarize the most up-to-date, unbiased information I could find surrounding artificial sweeteners. By the end of reading this, I hope you are able to make a confident decision concerning whether you will regularly, or sparingly, choose to consume products which have been sweetened artificially.
As a food consumer, I prefer to know and understand how artificial sweeteners are made. Saccharin was produced when a scientist was searching for coal tar derivatives in a lab. Acesulfame potassium is very similar in structure to saccharin, but was developed more recently, and has a higher level of sweetness per gram. Aspartame was accidentally created when researchers were searching for a new ulcer treatment drug, and Neotame was created as a derivative of aspartame that cannot be metabolized to produce the amino acid phenylalanine within the body (making consuming it an option for individuals with the metabolic disorder Phenylketonuria). Finally, sucralose is a chlorinated sucrose (sugar) molecule, and is now the most commonly used artificial sweetener on the market. No doubt, these aren’t the most appetizing descriptions, but the notion of being able to control calories while still consuming our favorite sweet foods tends to override the unappealing chemical profile of artificial sweeteners quite frequently. Based on my own review of the research, here is what I suggest you consider before consuming artificial sweeteners:
- The body responds differently to artificial sweeteners than to sugar.
- Both sugar and artificial sweeteners appear to have a negative effect on dietary behavior when consumed excessively.
- There are potential health risks and benefits associated with artificial sweeteners; your role in the food market is to personally decide if the pros outweigh the cons or vice versa.
One of the most prominent debates surrounding whether or not artificial sweeteners are a better option than sugar is that triggering sweet taste sensory signals without a corresponding increase in carbohydrate metabolism might lead to impaired appetite control. For example, while glucose (sugar) seems to prolong a decrease in the activity of the “I’m hungry” area of your brain, artificial sweeteners do not appear to do so. In fact, research efforts have repeatedly shown that sweetness unassociated with caloric content only offers a partial activation of the food reward feedback system, which is what keeps us feeling fuller and more satisfied. Despite this, however, it cannot be guaranteed that artificial sweeteners will cause you to overeat, or to feel hungrier more often. Numerous published studies were unable to detect differences in appetite control between sugar and artificial sweetener consumers. Furthermore, the factor in the majority of identified studies that contributed to the most variation in appetite control was the VOLUME of the sweetener-delivering load. It is also important to note that sugar can negatively affect dietary behavior since consumption of sugary products has been observed to overwhelm the body’s hunger and fullness regulation systems and lead to insulin resistance.
While appetite control plays a huge role in determining dietary behaviors, as a Registered Dietitian, my biggest concern arises when clients of mine are using artificial sweeteners to excuse excessive consumption of sweet beverages and foods. For example, if you are consuming large amounts of diet soda on a daily basis just because you can without that particular habit causing you to gain weight, beware! You are training yourself to constantly allow instant gratification to forgo healthy behaviors. On the other hand, when consumption of products such as carbonated beverages and candy, which are normally primarily composed of sugar as opposed to sugar, fats, and protein, using artificial sweeteners can reduce caloric content quite markedly and assist weight loss efforts. Be aware that no study has ever shown the use of artificial sweeteners alone to consistently be associated with weight loss.
Finally, it is important to recognize that caloric restriction to achieve and maintain a healthy weight is linked with decreased risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease and specific types of cancer. Using artificial sweeteners may help us to experience this benefit. On the other hand, all five of the approved artificial sweeteners have also been linked to serious conditions. Keep in mind, that causal links have not been established for any life-threatening conditions in humans, at least yet anyway. The connection between saccharin and bladder cancer, for example, was established by feeding rodents unprecedented amounts of the sweetener. Aspartame appears to be the most controversial of the five, as it has been highly associated with several acute problems. If you experience any notable gastrointestinal discomfort after consuming aspartame, my suggestion to you is to not consume it. It may be damaging your intestinal lining, which is definitely not a good thing. This rule applies to all other artificial sweeteners as well.
In summary, artificial sweeteners are a new scientific creation. They have all been developed in the last 30-40 years, which means that we do not know enough about them to draw official conclusions. It is up to you as the food consumer to decide if the risks outweigh the benefits of using them. In any case, using them in moderation is always a good idea. It is established that high amounts of artificial sweeteners will not augment the calorie-control benefits alone, but will likely increase your risk for potential health complications. My advice is to be sure you are not using them as a “band-aid” solution to cover up bad habits. Take it or leave it, this is a personal decision. Being informed is probably the best thing you can do.