Americans love artificial sweeteners because they have fewer or no calories and can thereby help us lose weight. In theory – and both the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association both support this, when consumed carefully, non-nutritive sweeteners can even help lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.[i]
Sounds great! Looks like we have our solution for cutting added sugars out of the western diet, right? Sorry, but NO! Not only are sweeteners not the panacea for this national health crisis, they are a bigger part of the problem.
First Problem – Sugar substitutes are as addictive as added sugars. Some are even more potent.
A National Institutes of Health NCBI study on rats concluded that they preferred water sweetened with saccharin over intravenous cocaine. The study also found that most mammals including humans have a hypersensitivity to sweeteners that give us an astounding stimulation when we consume them. This can lead to addiction.[ii]
According to Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight loss specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, “non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A minuscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulating sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes.”[iii] Ludwig also maintains that people who are using artificial sweeteners regularly may find healthy options like fruits and vegetables with less sweetness intensity unappealing or unpalatable.
Second Problem – Along with addiction, people who use artificial sweeteners may replace calories with foods and beverages that contain added sugars.
It is a common justification for people to opt for cake or a bowl of ice cream because they are drinking diet soda. Furthermore, research shows that people who are consuming sweeteners regularly may associate sweetness with calorific intake.[iv]
This results in craving more sweet food over nutritious food, without discriminating between those with added sugar and those with sweeteners, and eventually gaining weight.
Third Problem – Sweeteners can cause type 2 diabetes, as well as other life-threatening diseases.
A multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis found that daily consumption of diet soda shows a 36% increase in developing metabolic syndrome and a 67% increase in the risk of getting type 2 diabetes.[v]
There is still a lot of definitive research to be done to clearly determine if non-nutritive sweeteners directly affect insulin resistance and hence, type 2 diabetes. Perhaps what the multi-ethnic study doesn’t reveal is that people who are drinking diet soda every day are also consuming foods and other beverages that are high in added sugar. The aforementioned addictive qualities of sweeteners can certainly support this argument.
The inconclusive studies notwithstanding, it’s hard to believe that artificial sweeteners would not have the same or similar malignant attributes as added sugars when entering the human body.
A 2013 Washington University study found that obese patients released 20% more insulin when drinking a beverage sweetened with Splenda (sucralose) than they did when drinking another beverage with the same amount of added sugar.[vi]
The research here suggests that when your tongue tastes a sweet flavor – regardless of its chemical make-up – it sends a message to your brain and stomach that signals the pancreas to start producing insulin with the expectation that sugar is on its way. Even though added sugar is not entering the blood, your body is not functioning properly.
Not all artificial sweeteners are the same, so they each have their own unique impact on the body. There is a lot more research to be done on understanding the metabolic effects of non-nutritive sweeteners, which leads to our next point.
Fourth Problem – Artificial sweeteners can potentially cause cancer and the jury is still out on several other health risk factors.
During the 1970s, research conducted on rats wielded initially conclusive results that saccharin caused cancer. Warning labels appeared on many packaged products, including a popular soda that used this artificial sweetener. These findings would be debunked years later, but by this time the damage had been done as new alternative sweeteners would exploit this bad publicity to gain the greater market share that saccharin once occupied.
A lot of these next generation sweeteners have been cleared by the FDA, but research in 2012 warns that despite safety reports, health-related concerns such as the risk for lymphoma and leukemia remain when consuming sodas with the artificial sweetener aspartame.[vii]
Even Stevia, lauded as the “natural” artificial sweetener because it is extracted from a South American plant bearing the same name, has NOT been approved by the FDA as it may have a negative impact on the kidneys, on reproductive and cardiovascular systems, as well as on blood sugar control.[viii]
One Certain Conclusion: Artificial is still artificial!
Non-nutritive sweeteners when used in moderation can help people lose weight and in theory curb the risk of diabetes, obesity and other health factors. But as the Mayo Clinic warns, “just because a food is marketed as sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s free of calories. If you eat too many sugar-free foods, you can still gain weight if they have over ingredients that contain calories.”[ix] What’s more, processed foods containing artificial sweeteners still do not offer the same health benefits as whole foods like fruit and vegetables.
This leads to our final point. Sweeteners are a farce because they are an artificial substitute for the same 20th century western diet that – as argued in our previous blogs – has been saturated with added sugars for greater profit at the expense of our national health.
The sweet tooth we need to reinvent is the one that craves whole foods containing sugar in their natural form. Whole fruits and vegetables should be our drugs of choice because they tend to be highly nutritious, high in fiber and low in glycemic load.
Non-nutritive sweeteners in spite of their marketed health benefits are a more addictive flavor that lead to people craving more sweetness. One could even argue that they are a gateway back to added-sugar consumables.
Like added sugars themselves, the warning is still the same for sweeteners: just say no.
Say yes to a better quality of life that fruits and vegetables offer, including better sleep habits, more sustainable energy, and lower risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes!
[i] Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Current Use and Health Perspectives. A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association,” http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2012/07/09/CIR.0b013e31825c42ee
[iii] “Artificial sweeteners: sugar free but at what cost?” by Holly Strawbridge, Harvard Health Publications. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030
[v] “Diet Soda intake and Risk of Incident Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis,” Jennifer A. Nettleton, Diabetes Care. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/32/4/688
[vi] “Sucralose Affects Glycemic and Hormonal Responses to an Oral Glucose Load,” M. Yanina Pepino, PhD, Diabetes Care, September, 2013. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/36/9/2530.short
[vii]“Consumption of artificial sweetener – and sugar – containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2012/10/23/ajcn.111.030833.abstract
[viii] “Stevia Side Effects,” New Health Guide, http://www.newhealthguide.org/Stevia-Side-Effects.html
[ix] “Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes. Mayo Clinic. August 20, 2015 http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936?pg=2