Sugar is a big focus in health and nutrition. Cutting back can improve your health and help you lose weight… and artificial sweeteners are one way that helps people accomplish that. However, these artificial sweeteners aren’t as benign as people once thought. Let’s dive a little deeper.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners (often called low-calorie or non-nutritive sweeteners) are synthetic chemicals that stimulate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue, much like sugar would.
Artificial sweeteners are often the topic of heated debate. While they have been declared safe by US regulatory bodies, and many people use them to reduce their sugar intake, health claims and long-term safety concerns require more research. They are claimed to increase your risk of cancer and harm your blood sugar and gut health.
Here are the most common artificial sweeteners (we will go into natural sweetener alternatives later on):
Effects of Artificial Sweeteners on Blood Sugar
Our bodies have tightly-controlled mechanisms to keep our blood sugar levels stable. Blood sugar levels increase when we eat foods containing carbohydrates. When digested, carbohydrates are broken down into sugar and absorbed into the bloodstream, leading to an increase in blood sugar levels. When our blood sugar levels rise, our body releases insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that allows blood sugar to leave the blood and enter our cells, where it can be used for energy or stored as fat.
The sight, smell, and taste of food, as well as chewing and swallowing, can cause small amounts of insulin to be released before any sugar enters the bloodstream. This is known as cephalic phase insulin release.
Research has shown that the two primary ways that artificial sweeteners may interact and interfere with this process are:
Effects of Artificial Sweeteners on Weight Control
The research of artificial sweeteners on weight control are mixed.
Randomized controlled studies (the gold standard in research) report that artificial sweeteners may reduce body weight, fat mass, and waist circumference.
One study found that use of artificial sweeteners was linked to a reduction in body weight by an average of 1.7 pounds.
Another study showed that replacing regular soft drinks with sugar-free versions can decrease body mass index (BMI) by up to 1.3–1.7 points.
Additionally, choosing artificially sweetened foods instead of those with added sugar may reduce the number of daily calories you consume. Various studies ranging from 4 weeks to 40 months show that this may lead to weight loss of up to 2.9 pounds.
Artificially sweetened drinks can be an easy alternative for those who regularly consume soft drinks and want to decrease their sugar consumption.
Note that opting for diet soda will not lead to any weight loss if you compensate by eating larger portions or extra sweets.
On the other hand, some observational studies report a link between consuming artificially sweetened beverages and obesity.
Many other studies suggest that sucralose and artificial sweeteners don't seem to have any major effects on your weight.
Observational studies have found no connection between artificial sweetener consumption and body weight or fat mass, and some of them report a small increase in body mass index (BMI).
So basically, the research around weight control and sugar alternatives is inconclusive and all over the place.
Effects of Artificial Sweeteners on Appetite
While many people use artificial sweeteners to aid them in weight loss, some people believe that artificial sweeteners might actually increase appetite and promote weight gain.
This idea is centered around artificial sweeteners not activating the food reward pathway needed to make you feel satisfied after you eat. Because they taste sweet but lack the calories of other sweet-tasting foods, they might confuse the brain into still feeling hungry. Additionally, some scientists think that you may need to eat more of an artificially sweetened food - compared with the sugar-sweetened version - to feel full. It's even been suggested that sweeteners may cause cravings for sugary foods.
Still, studies do not support the idea that artificial sweeteners increase hunger or calorie intake. In fact, several studies have found that participants report less hunger and consume fewer calories when they replace sugary foods and beverages with artificially sweetened alternatives.
Additionally, some researchers believe that the intense sweetness of artificial sweeteners may cause you to become dependent on sweet flavor, which could increase your desire for sweet foods in general.
Again, the evidence is mixed and researchers haven’t come to an agreement on this topic either.
Effects of Artificial Sweeteners on Metabolic Conditions & Cancer
Some observational studies link artificial sweeteners to an increased risk of metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and metabolic syndrome. While these observational studies cannot decisively prove cause and effect, the results are shocking. One study found that a high intake of diet soft drinks was linked to a 121% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. Another study noted that these beverages were associated with a 34% greater risk of metabolic syndrome.
As far as cancer goes, there has been tons of debate for decades about whether artificial sweeteners may cause cancer. But no animal studies have shown a link in any of the sweeteners approved by the FDA, provided they are consumed in the recommended amounts. One artificial sweetener that was linked to bladder cancer, has been banned.
Other Considerations for Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners may not be safe for baking at high temperatures. So either stick with more natural sugars for baking, or keep the oven below 350 degrees.
Additionally, artificial sweeteners when consumed in place of sugar, neutralize acid and help prevent tooth decay.
What about Natural Sweeteners?
Health-conscious people sometimes opt for more natural sweeteners like coconut sugar, honey, agave nectar, molasses, and maple syrup - instead of table sugar. While these might contain differing amounts of fructose and nutrients, your liver will treat them the same as regular sugar.
Quitting refined sugar can be tough, especially since we are anthropologically and physiologically to crave sugar. But given how incredibly harmful sugar can be on our health, it’s definitely worth the effort.
Here are a few additional sweeteners found in nature that are low in calories, low in fructose, and taste very sweet:
In the context of a healthy, whole-food based diet, small amounts of these natural sugars won't cause any harm.
The World Health Organization recommends restricting consumption of sugars to no more than 10% of daily caloric intake, with a proposal to lower this level to 5% or less for optimal health. Too much sugar is not ideal for our teeth or waistline, and may be linked to many degenerative diseases.
Unfortunately, substituting sugar with the currently available artificial sweeteners does not appear to have favorable effects either. The clinical research is mixed and unconvincing as to whether it helps or hinders weight control, and may be linked to health hazards. Scientific studies currently indicate that public health will be improved by reducing intake of all sweeteners, both caloric and non-caloric (natural and artificial).