Artificial sweeteners are big business ($1.5billion by 2015) and used by millions of consumers. Are they good or bad? safe or risky? Here’s some basic research that may help answer a few questions.
First, a sugar primer. Sucrose (table sugar) is not an essential part of the human diet – we need zero added sugar in our diet. Most of our energy is produced by glucose – simple sugar. We get glucose from foods we eat – like fructose (fruit sugar) or lactose (milk sugar) or other carbohydrates (preferably complex ones). Our amazing bodies then convert these carbs to glucose so that we have a continuous source of energy to burn. Table sugar is not required in this process.
Most naturally sweet things are good for us – think berries, apples, sweet potatoes. That’s because their natural sugar is packaged with fiber, phytonutrients and other ingredients that benefit us. Not so for table sugar (empty calories + negative affect). But sucrose taste really good to most of us, and we like it. Too much is bad for anyone but for some folks any sucrose is really bad (diabetics, especially those with Type 1). For these consumers, and for anyone hoping to lose a few pounds, artificial sweeteners offer the sweet taste we crave without the calories and spike in blood sugar levels that come with the real thing. Another benefit: they don’t promote tooth decay.
Is there a problem? There are certainly things to consider.
- The first is safety. Artificial sweeteners are regulated and approved (or not) for use by the FDA which also assigns each one an ADI (acceptable daily intake) that’s far higher than the amount that most individuals would consume. That said, there are plenty of research results pointing to the risks associated with them. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding many of them, either due to specific health risks or to lack of research. Aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet) has been linked to diseases ranging from fibromyalgia to premature birth. Saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) was considered for ban by the FDA in 1977 because of its possible link with higher cancer rates, but Congress stepped in and permitted use with a warning which was subsequently removed in 2000. Sucralose (Splenda) has been linked to leukemia in mice. Do these warnings mean we should avoid all artificial sweeteners? Not necessarily but you may want to consider the findings when you’re making choices.
- Can artificial sweeteners actually result in weight gain? There are a couple of theories on this. One relates to the actual products which are much sweeter than sucrose – 100s of times sweeter than sucrose. As manufacturers make artificially sweetened products sweeter (they know we love it), we crave more sweet (these products are not without calories so maybe we eat more.) A second theory involves overcompensation. Tests have shown that when people are informed that they are eating artificially sweetened products, they will actually overcompensate by eating more. Those who do not know they are eating artificially sweetened do not overcompensate!
- Artificial sweeteners actually mess with the body’s ability to signal appetite control and satiety! Yep, that seems to be the case. For thousands of years, sweets signaled the arrival of calories (think of hunter-gathers finding a blueberry bush, WOW food, yumyum eat, get full, signal the brain and you stop eating). Artificial sugars taste sweet but deliver no calories. Research tests have shown that the brain is not fooled by these fakes and does not release dopamine as it does when sugar is eaten. A problem? It’s probably too early to tell – more research necessary.
What’s one to do? Understand the risks associated with both sugar and artificial sweeteners and limit the use of each. This may take a little time and research. Food manufacturers well understand our fondness for the sweet taste and it’s ubiquitous in our food supply – read the labels! Artificial sweeteners are very helpful for those who need to eliminate or curb sugar intake – everyone certainly deserves a treat now and then. But remember that a zero calorie drink may be preferable to a sugary one, but water is healthier than either of those. Choose your calories wisely.
Want more information? Helpful links:
- Click here for more information about all kinds of sweeteners.
- More about the brain’s dopamine reward system and glucose here.
- Cheat sheet for better label reading from WebMD.
- More information on appetite and brain chemistry.