Sugar is bad — we get it. But are artificial sweeteners any better? Found in tons of foods, these zero-calorie sugar substitutes have taken the U.S. market by storm.
“They are in everything. Drinks, snacks and desserts. Start reading food labels and you’ll be surprised how integrated into our food supply they are,” says Dr. Mike Roussell, PhD, a nutritionist and author who serves as an advisor to Men’s Health magazine.
Yet, some new studies indicate that these tasty alternatives could potentially derail some aspects of your health — and increase your pants size, too.
The market for artificial sweeteners has soared above $1 billion annually in the U.S. alone. But with more research emerging questioning the safety of these artificially manufactured products, what’s a health-conscious sweets lover to do?
Sugar: It’s What You Crave
Humans are primed to crave sweets. Millions of years ago, when we spent our days hunting and gathering (instead of pecking at the computer, as we do today), we needed the calories. Yet, over the years, our sugar consumption has escalated to dangerous levels.
“Sucralose, aka Splenda, may alter and inhibit metabolism and interfere with the body’s absorption of certain medications.”
Today, Americans eat approximately 20 teaspoons of sugar each day, according to the 2005 to 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The American Heart Association guidelines indicate this is way too much. We should be eating no more than six teaspoons per day for women, and nine teaspoons per day for men.
In refined form, sugar (also known as sucrose) has been linked to everything from heart disease to diabetes. Studies show that sugar can even be addictive. Our brains and bodies delight in the sweet stuff, in the same way we might respond to a drug, causing us to want more and more. So turning to calorie-free, “diet-friendly” alternatives makes sense, right?
“There are so many different kinds of zero or low calories sweeteners. They are created from a variety of things. Some are plant derived, like stevia, some are sugar alcohols, like xylitol and some are modified sugar molecules, like Splenda,” Roussell says. “They all have their own unique sweetness and taste.”
But, you may not want to rip open the Sweet ‘n Low just yet. Over the years, evidence has emerged that overloading your diet with artificial sugars could potentially have some undesirable side effects on your health.
Your Health on Sweeteners
First, let’s talk physical issues. A review of available research published in 2013 in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found evidence suggesting that sucralose (aka Splenda) may alter and inhibit metabolism and interfere with the body’s absorption of certain medications.
The review also notes that sucralose could potentially harm the beneficial bacteria in our gut. Even scarier: When exposed to heat (like when it’s baked into cookies or cupcakes), the chemical compounds in sucralose may experience a toxic breakdown.
And evidence continues to mount against zero-calorie additives. A just-published study in the journal Nature explored how mice reacted to a diet of artificial sweeteners. The researchers found that the fake stuff drives the kind of glucose intolerance that can lead to diabetes in human.
Playing Tricks on Your Waistline?
“Artificial sweeteners [are] a crutch that don’t force people to deal with deeper issues of regulating calorie intake.”
Fake sugars are engineered to taste even stronger than the real thing. “Artificial sweeteners are designed specifically to be exceedingly sweet, upwards of hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than table sugar,” says Julieanna Hever, a dietitian and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. In fact, the chemical blend that Splenda is made of is engineered to be 600 times sweeter than real sugar, according to The Sugar Association.
“Because of this, taste buds acclimate to a heightened threshold of sweetness, perpetuating sugar cravings, and making it exceedingly challenging to overcome sugar addiction,” Hever says.
The problem isn’t just what artificial sweeteners can do to your body. There’s also a psychological component at play. If you drink a diet soda, are you more likely to give yourself permission to have a slice of cake later? Are you less likely to carefully consider what you’re eating the rest of the day?
“Artificial sweeteners [are] a crutch that don’t force people to deal with deeper issues of regulating calorie intake and making healthier food choices,” says psychologist Ramani Durvasula, author of You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life.
While some studies have shown that switching from sugar-sweetened beverages to zero-calorie artificially sweetened drinks may prevent weight gain, or aid weight loss, other studies have suggested the opposite. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University showed that overweight and obese adults who drank diet soda still ate a comparable amount of calories as heavy adults who consumed sugar-sweetened beverages.
The Not-So-Sweet Controversy
Not all scientists agree that artificial sweeteners are a no-no when it comes to your health and diet.
“If someone drinks [more than] 20 ounces of soda per day, switching them to diet soda will help weight loss,” Roussell says.
Much of the data on the potential negative health effects of artificial sweeteners comes from rodent studies, which don’t always translate to people. Experts from the American Heart Association agree with the need for more data — but add that research suggests artificial sweeteners have a place in weight-loss efforts.
“The prudent, moderate use of artificial sweeteners is usually acceptable,” says Colette Heimowitz, the vice president of nutrition and education at Atkins Nutritionals, although she didn’t specify recommended intake levels. “[They’re] much better than the alternative of high sugar intake,” which she says can spike insulin and lead to other detrimental health problems.
Maybe the key, as with so many other foods, lies in consuming artificially sweetened goods in moderation. Using a little sweetener in your morning cup of Joe may be fine, but don’t let it give you an excuse to splurge on a croissant, too. Hitting up the fake sugar aisle as a constant means to indulge your sweet tooth may ultimately spike your best efforts to stay slim.