Artificial sweeteners have little to no calories. And because they can be thousands of times sweeter than sugar, they’re often used as a substitute for it (1, 6, 12). For this reason, food manufacturers market artificial sweeteners as a way to reduce the sugar and calories in your diet and help you lose weight.
But, do artificial sweeteners increase weight loss? No. In fact, many studies suggest that people gain weight by eating them (1, 10, 12). And even though some food governing bodies have deemed most of them safe, are they really? Not necessarily. In reality, there are many conflicting studies about the safety of artificial sweeteners, although some studies that support their safety are funded by companies that make and sell them (10). Hence, you should be cautious when consuming artificial sweeteners because they could be less healthy than table sugar (1, 10, 12).
Are artificial sweeteners safe?
There haven’t been enough longitudinal studies on artificial sweeteners to demonstrate their safety (12). However, because there isn’t much evidence proving that they aren’t safe, food companies have pressured governing bodies to allow their use (10). Why? Because artificial sweeteners are cheap to make and much sweeter than sugar. So food companies know they can get uneducated consumers hooked on them (7, 10, 12). The reality is that some artificial sweeteners have been linked to side effects. For example, they may cause cancer in rats, disrupt the body’s calorie counter, and increase cravings for refined sugars (1, 10, 12). These effects make sense considering how some artificial sweeteners are made.
How are they made?
Some artificial sweeteners come from simple carbs, such as sucrose. Sucrose comes from refining sugarcane or beet sugar to make table sugar. Sucralose, an artificial sweetener found in major brands that are sugar substitute for coffees, teas, and baking. It’s derived by taking sucrose and replacing hydrogen-oxygen groups in it with chlorine (9). This is clearly an unnatural substitute.
Whereas some artificial sweeteners are chemically synthesized, others are processed more naturally. For example, the first artificial sweetener to be chemically synthesized was saccharin in 1879. Chemist Fahlberg discovered saccharin by accident because he didn’t wash his hands before eating. He was working with a combination of substances, such as sugar and coal tar. Saccharin was accidentally found by boiling over a cocktail of sulfobenzoic acid, phosphorus chloride, and ammonia (3, 10).
More natural and extracted from a plant native to Paraguay and Brazil, stevia is a sweetener that is 300 times stronger than sugar. By using leaves, an alcohol, and heat, it’s possible to make a liquid form of stevia. Unfortunately, some food companies extract stevia and refine it into a less natural powder form. Advocates argue that stevia has no negative effects. But some studies have shown that it may lower sperm counts and lead to smaller offspring (10). Regardless, if you understand how some artificial sweeteners are made, you can make healthier choices.
Why aspartame stands out
Since its approval in 1981, 75% of all artificial sweetener complaints to Accounts Receivable Management Solutions (ARMS) have been about aspartame. (Note, however, that only about 1% of people who have problems with products report them.) Some people have suggested that aspartame causes several symptoms and conditions, including dizziness, headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, and cancer (10). Critics argue that even though aspartame breaks down into digestible amino acids, these amino acids are normally accompanied by others amino acids in natural foods that “balance” out their effects. Having abnormally high concentrations of the amino acids aspartame produces may have adverse effects (1,10).
Regardless, top governing bodies stand by their aspartame regulations. Moreover, aspartame was the victim of Internet hoax reports in the late 1990s, which led the public to think it was far worse than scientific reports suggested (5). This prompted governing bodies to affirm its safety (2, 4, 8).
However, in 2015, aspartame was replaced with sucralose in diet drink products. Aspartame also isn’t safe for people with phenylketonuria – a genetic metabolic condition (2, 4, 8, 11).
How artificial sweeteners affect our bodies
It’s important to note that many countries have deemed the artificial sweeteners mentioned here and many others to be safe. Hence, most acute negative effects on health are probably minor (2, 4, 5, 8). However, even without evidence from longitudinal studies, some conclusions suggest that artificial sweeteners throw off our body’s ability to “count calories” (1, 10). This refers to our body’s ability to match how many calories we are consuming with how many calories we need each day.
The problem with “counting calories” is that our body uses the taste of how sweet something is to estimate how many calories we’ve consumed. Because artificial sweeteners contain little to no calories, they disrupt our body’s calorie count. Specifically, studies have shown that eating artificial sweeteners regularly can lead the body to think that sweet taste equals minimal calories. So when you eat sweet foods without artificial sweeteners, your body underestimates the calories you’ve consumed, which makes you overeat (1, 10, 12).
Foods that contain artificial sweeteners
You’re most likely to find artificial sweeteners in foods like diet soft drinks, gum, candy, powdered soft drinks, flavored water, condiments, instant coffee, baking mixes, and desserts. However, you can also find them in toothpaste, mouthwash, chewable vitamins, and cough drops. Because they show up in so many products, be aware of what you consume by reading ingredient lists of the foods you buy.
Here are some of the most common artificial sweeteners:
- Additive Code: E951
- Additive Code: E954
- Additive Code: E955
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- Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of aspartame (E 951) as a food additive. (2013). EFSA Journal. 11 (12): 263. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2013.3496
- Fahlberg’s account of how he discovered the sweetness of saccharin appears in: (Anon.) (July 17, 1886) “The inventor of saccharine,” Scientific American, new series, 60 (3) : 36.
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- Magnuson B. A.; Burdock G. A.; Doull J.; et al. (2007). Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 37 (8): 629–727. doi:1080/10408440701516184
- Myers, R. L.; Myers, R. L. (2007). The 100 most important chemical compounds: a reference guide. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. p. 241. ISBN 0-313-33758-6.
- Obringer, L.A., (2005). “How artificial sweeteners work”
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- Roberts, M. (2015). Pepsico to drop artificial sweetener aspartame. Retrieved on 6 March 2017 at http://www.bbc.com/news/health-32478203
- Yang, Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings.Yale J Biol Med, 83(2), 101-108.