Artificial Sweeteners Not as Sweet as You Think
Food and beverage manufacturers first latched onto the miracle that is the artificial sweetener not because it was lower in calories, but because it was cheaper.
That sweetener was saccharin, discovered in the 1870s quite by accident when a researcher working on food preservatives at Johns Hopkins University accidentally spilled some of the compound he had been synthesizing on his hands. Later that night, he noticed a sweet taste on his skin, and realized it had come from that compound.
Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar, which means that much less can be used to create the same sweetness in a product. By 1907, the sweetener was in a variety of canned foods, but five years later it was banned as a food additive. During the sugar shortages of World War I, however, it was declared safe and its usage gradually increased.
Starting in the 1950s, other manufacturers got into the game, introducing new artificial sweeteners including cyclamate, which spawned the diet-soda industry. By the 1960s, cyclamate mixed with saccharin was sold as Sweet ’n Low and became the most popular sugar substitute. It could be found in diet and nondiet beverages, canned goods, baked goods, toothpaste, mouthwash, and cereal, among other items.
During that same decade, research chemists discovered aspartame while developing a new ulcer drug.
Despite their increased usage, however, artificial sweeteners remained surrounded in suspicion. In 1969, the FDA banned cyclamate, after animal studies showed it was linked to bladder tumors. In 1972, they removed saccharin from their safe list. In 1974, they approved aspartame. Soon after, that approval was stayed due to concerns about the ingredient causing brain tumors.
Thus started the rocky history of artificial sweeteners. Approved, then not approved. Safe, then not safe. We love them because they allow us to eat and drink the things we like without (we think) padding our waistlines, but at the same time, we feel uneasy about what effects they may be having on our bodies.
It’s been decades since these sweeteners first came on the market, and today we have even more choices than we did back then. Are any of them free of suspicion, or should women be avoiding them all?
Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Loss—A Broken Promise
At first glance, it seems like artificial sweeteners are good things. We know today that sugar is addictive, and if you’re someone who has a hard time going without your daily soda, which dumps about 150 calories into your system, it seems that choosing a diet soda, which delivers no calories, would be a good way to watch out for your health.
Some of our largest and most respected health organizations have stated that these sugar substitutes can be helpful. The American Heart Association (AHA), for example, and the American Diabetes Association (ADA), state that “smart use” can help reduce added sugars in the diet, lower calories consumed, and help maintain healthy weight, which reduces risk of heart disease and diabetes.
But that’s only part of the story. Yes, sugar substitutes can help us avoid calories. But does that really equal weight management?
Not necessarily, according to recent studies.
In a 2010 study review, for example, researchers found a correlation between the use of these sweeteners and weight gain. Other studies show conflicting results, but the question remains, as there is no clear-cut research showing that consuming beverages with these sweeteners results in healthy weight management.
Why would this be? Science has shown us that these chemicals can affect the body’s ability to gauge just how much we’ve consumed. Turns out that artificial sweeteners actually make us crave more sweet foods and drinks.
In a 2008 study, for example, researchers scanned the brains of participants who took sips of water sweetened with sugar or sucralose (another sugar substitute). They found that sugar lit up those regions in the brain associated with reward, but sucralose didn’t.
Sucralose was not as “satisfying,” researchers theorized, driving the brain to seek out more sweetness, which in the end, could result in more calories consumed, and weight gain instead of weight loss. This, perhaps because sugar substitutes actually encourage sugar addiction.
“Artificial sweeteners,” researchers write in a 2010 study, “precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence.” The scientists suggested a gradual weaning off sweet tastes entirely, to change one’s preference for ever-sweeter foods.
Does diet soda help women avoid obesity? Maybe not. But even if they do, sugar substitutes have been linked to other, even more concerning health problems.
Sugar Substitutes May Increase Risk of Diabetes
In 2014, researchers published a study in Nature reporting that non-caloric artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame could encourage metabolic changes similar to those found in pre-diabetes.
Scientists gave mice water sweetened with one of the three sugar substitutes, or with real sugar. After a week, those drinking plain water and water with real sugar experienced little change, but those getting the sugar substitutes developed an intolerance to glucose—a condition that results in higher than normal blood glucose levels, the hallmark of diabetes.
How could this happen? The researchers noted that the sweeteners affected the delicate bacterial balance in the gut—called the microbiome—which resulted in the metabolic change. After treating the animals with antibiotics, the glucose intolerance went away.
Subsequent studies on humans reported similar findings—artificial sweeteners changed the balance of good and bad gut bacteria, resulting in blood sugar changes.
This type of imbalance has also been linked with obesity. Jeffrey Gordon, a physician and biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who’s done a lot of research on gut bacteria and weight gain, reported to Scientific American that bacteria in the gut may have a big role to play in how the body extracts calories, stores energy, and produces hormones like leptin that shape our eating behavior.
If that’s true, artificial sweeteners could be messing up that whole system, causing the body to hang onto more calories, crave more sweet things, and build up an intolerance to glucose.
Other studies have supported this theory. A 2012 animal study showed that feeding saccharin-sweetened yogurt to rats produced higher blood sugar levels than did the same yogurt sweetened with glucose. A second 2012 study showed that lifelong aspartame use produced insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels.
Researchers are clear that we need more studies. Many of those listed above are animal studies, for instance, and the results may be different in humans.
Still, the evidence we have so far isn’t great. It seems that more than the occasional use of sugar substitutes is anything but good for us.
What About Cancer?
When you’re talking about artificial sweeteners, there’s always an elephant in the room: cancer. That was the first scare associated with these chemicals way back when saccharin was the main player on the field. What do we know about that now?
The American Cancer Society provides a general overview of the research. According to them, we have no clear association between artificial sweeteners and cancer—but we do have evidence of a possible link.
- Saccharin (Sweet ’n Low): Early animal studies linked it with bladder cancer, but human studies have shown no consistent link. In 2000, the ingredient was “delisted” from the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens, where it had been listed since 1981 as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
- Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal): A 1996 report suggested aspartame could be related to an increase in brain tumors between 1975 and 1992. Later studies refuted this evidence. In 2005, lab studies showed more lymphomas and leukemias in rats fed high levels of the chemical (same as drinking 8 cans of diet soda a day), but there were inconsistencies in the findings. More recent studies found no connection between aspartame and any cancer.
- Acesulfame Potassium (Sweet One), Sucralose (Splenda) and Neotame (Newtame): All studied for cancer risk and found to have no connection.
- Cyclamate: Banned in the U.S.
What Should Women Do?
The FDA states that all five approved sugar substitutes—acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose—are safe when used in moderation. Yet we haven’t seen the final word on the matter, considering the studies we’ve seen on weight gain, diabetes, and sugar cravings.
There are other concerns, as well. A 2008 study reported that women who consumed more than two diet sodas a day had double the risk for kidney decline. A 2012 study found a connection between diet sodas and increased risk for vascular events, including stroke.
And just to confuse you a bit more, a large 2013 study review reported that obesity risk “may” be lower when people replace their sugar-sweetened beverages with artificially sweetened beverages, but researchers added that more studies were needed.
Considering what we know so far, here’s our take on the issue.
There’s probably nothing wrong with consuming the occasional diet soda or artificially sweetened treat. But you may want to take these precautions:
- Be aware of your cravings—if you start wanting more and more sweet things, sugar substitutes may be messing you up. It may be time to cut back.
- Consume more probiotics to be sure your gut is healthy—think yogurt, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut.
- If you’re drinking diet sodas and still gaining weight, try eliminating them and consuming a “little” real sugar instead to see if that helps better satisfy you. Then try to find new ways to satisfy your taste buds, like choosing fruit-sweetened water and various flavors of tea or coffee.
- Try stevia-sweetened items instead. Stevia is a plant extract with a long history of use in South America. So far, the sweetener seems safe and has not been connected with any health issues. For the purest form, choose stevia leaf and tinctures.
- Consider cutting back on sugar, period. Check out our article on sugar to find out why, and how you can get started.
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