Artificial sweeteners are chemical compounds designed to replace sugar in the diet by stimulating receptors on the tongue that detect sweet flavors.
With the indisputable truth about sugar’s detrimental effects to health being common knowledge, artificial sweeteners have become incredibly popular.
More than two-thirds of Americans classify as overweight or obese, and cutting back or eliminating sugar seems to be on the top of most people’s “to-do” list.
While sugar and honey are examples of natural sweeteners, these chemical substitutes are usually either low-calorie or no-calorie options for imparting that sweet taste most of us want in certain foods and drinks without sabotaging weight or overall health goals.
Certain low-calorie sweeteners like stevia are actually natural, and sugar alcohols like xylitol, mannitol, erythritol and sorbitol deliver half (or less) the calories of sugar. Some of these have health benefits and are popular as well, but they are made through processing natural foods, so they are not chemical sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way; the controversy originates in the question of how they affect our bodies, and whether or not these chemical compounds are safe to ingest.
We’ll take a look here at exactly what science can tell us about the most popular artificial sweeteners on today’s market.
Types of Artificial Sweeteners
Since most of these chemical compounds deliver hundreds of times the sweetness of sugar, the ones that aren’t calorie-free don’t contribute any appreciable amount of carbohydrate to the diet. (3)
Here are some best-selling sugar substitutes, along with the ratio of sweetness compared to sugar:
- Aspartame, sold as Equal and Nutrasweet: 180 times sweeter than sugar
- Acesulfame-K, sold as Sweet One and Sunnett: 200 times as sweet
- Saccharin, sold as Sweet ‘n Low, Sugar Twin and Sweet Twin: 300 times sweeter
- Sucralose, sold as Splenda: 600 times as sweet
The Effect of Artificial Sweeteners on Appetite
Humans aren’t the only animals who seek reward foods that stimulate pleasure centers in the brain; if lab rats (and other animals) didn’t love that sweet taste like we do, there would be much less information available about how it all works.
Some researchers believe the lack of calories in artificial sweeteners causes an incomplete activation of the reward pathway, leading to increased appetite as the body seeks that feeling of satiation. (10)
Magnetic imaging technology confirms that eating sugar cuts back on the amount of signaling in the hypothalamus, which controls appetite. (11) Asparatame does not have the same effect.
When the body doesn’t feel satisfied with what you give it, you’re likely to experience cravings and possibly consume more calories to meet the desire.
In a trial with 200 participants, sugary drinks were replaced with either water or artificially sweetened drinks; no changes in food intake were noted over a 6-month period. (14)
How Artificial Sweeteners Affect Body Weight
While our ancestors had little opportunity to indulge in sweet foods, they’re abundant in modern culture. Some believe using artificial sweeteners encourages an unnatural focus on sweets.
We can easily train our taste buds by following preferences, and sugar or sweet-tasting foods are no exception. (15) It seems the more sweets we eat, the more we want.
Observational studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may actually be linked with weight gain over the long term. (16)
A recent review of 9 observational studies indicated users of artificial sweeteners can end up with higher Body Mass Index (BMI), but not significantly more fat mass or weight. (17)
The trouble with observational studies is they don’t really prove anything, because variables aren’t controlled, and outcomes can only be associated with a dietary habit, such as using artificial sweeteners.
In a large controlled trial with more than 600 juvenile participants, results showed less weight gain over 18 months when children consumed drinks sweetened artificially, compared to those who drank sugar-sweetened products. (18)
When researchers correlated data from 15 trials, they found weight loss for participants who replaced sugary drinks with artificially sweetened drinks averaged about 1.8 pounds. (19)
It’s tempting to focus on weight as a reflection of overall health, but we all know there’s more to it than that.
Back to observational studies (which can’t provide indisputable evidence), artificial sweeteners may be linked to a higher risk of several metabolic disorders, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. (22)
One study showed a staggering 121% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes for consumers of artificially sweetened soft drinks. (23) Another suggested consuming these drinks could jack up the chances of metabolic syndrome by 34%.
A clinical trial studying the effect of artificial sweeteners on gut bacteria indicated significant disruptions can occur; in rats, this led to glucose intolerance issues. (24)
Research shows when the environment inside the digestive system is negatively impacted by various conditions or circumstances, it increases the risk of developing a variety of serious disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even organ failure. (25, 26, 27)
While artificial sweeteners haven’t been proven toxic, ingesting chemicals is a different proposition than cleaning your bathroom with them.
Since we’re all individual and some people react to chemicals in a much different manner than others, whether or not you decide to use artificial sweeteners is a personal choice.
If you already use an artificial sweetener and you’ve noticed cravings, issues with blood sugar, headaches, or any other unexplained health problem, you may want to drop them for a while and see what happens.
Summary: The jury’s still out on some of the potential health effects of substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar, and using them isn’t likely to cause any significant changes in weight, but most people don’t seem to suffer ill effects.