Artificial sweeteners are seen by many as a way to have your cake and eat it too. What’s better than a sugary-tasting soda pop without all of the calories? Believe it or not, artificially sweetened products may make it more difficult to keep a trim waistline.
What are They?
Artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive. Non-nutritive means that artificial sweeteners do not provide nutrition to the body. They provide no calories, vitamins, or minerals.
Where It All Began
The first non-nutritive sweetener was saccharin, created in the late 1800s. Saccharin is up to 500 times sweeter than sugar. Sugar shortages during the two World Wars increased saccharin use in the early-to-mid-20th century.
Saccharin was popular with early dieters eager to shed pounds without giving up sugar. It came under scrutiny when studies linked it to bladder cancer in rats.(1) The FDA mandated a warning label be added to saccharin-containing products in response to these studies.
Cyclamate is another early non-nutritive sweetener. It was approved for use in the US in 1958. Later research demonstrated a link between cyclamate and cancer in animals. The FDA banned cyclamate use in the US in 1969. Cyclamate remains in use in Canada and Europe.
The Latest, Maybe Not So Greatest
The 80s and 90s saw more non-nutritive sweeteners enter the market. First came aspartame, under the trade name NutraSweet. It is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It was approved for use in food and beverages in 1981.
The lack of a bitter aftertaste boosted aspartame’s initial popularity. Anecdotal reports of headaches and seizures associated with aspartame raised alarm. Others expressed concern that aspartame can degrade into formaldehyde at temperatures above 85° to 90° Fahrenheit.(2) NutraSweet is widely used in low-calorie products today.
Additional sweeteners approved in the last two decades include acesulfame-K, alitame, sucralose, and neotame. Sucralose, under the brand name Splenda, is the most well known. None of these chemicals have been in use long enough to fully assess possible, negative health effects.(3)
Reassuring on Cancer, Other Questions Remain
Many health experts in the mainstream medical community feel artificial sweeteners do not cause cancer or other major health in humans.(3) This may be reassuring, but new concerns are being raised. The nature of these concerns may surprise you.
Can artificial sweeteners make you fat? It would be ironic if this were the case. Most people choose artificially sweetened beverages and foods specifically for weight management.
Sweet and Healthy
Humans have a natural preference for sweetness. This isn’t a problem when the preference is satisfied with fruit. Fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. Fruit was the only sweet food around for the majority of human history. In short, fruit, which has been around forever, is a healthy way to satisfy the human sweet tooth.(4)
In contrast, artificial sweeteners have been around for just a few decades. Our bodies evolved ways to regulate food intake when the diet contained only natural foods. It should come as no surprise that we don’t always cope well with new “foods.” Artificial sweeteners in particular may cause some of this confusion between brain and body.
Confusing the Taste Buds and the Brain
Our taste buds, stomachs, and brains don’t always know what to make of artificial sweeteners’ confusing signals. Sweet flavors signal our bodies to prepare for calories. With artificial sweeteners, no calories follow. This may lead to a disconnect between body and brain.
This may lead to insulin overproduction and later overeating. For someone trying to lose weight, this is unlikely to help. Insulin is a hormone that encourages our bodies to store excess calories as fat.
Another problem is the “over-sweetening” of the American palate. Constantly stimulating our taste buds with intensely sweet flavors may foster a dislike of other tastes. Fruit seems only mildly sweet. Vegetables may not taste good at all. This may lead to unhealthy food choices and … you guessed it, weight gain.(4)
Theory and Reality
These theories remain unproven, for now. Evidence to date highlights a potential link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain, however. A 7-year study of over 5,000 adults found those consuming 21 or more diet drinks per week had twice the risk of becoming overweight or obese compared to people having no diet drinks.(5)
A study of 6,800 adults suggested daily diet drink consumption increases the risk of metabolic syndrome by 36% and the risk of type 2 diabetes by 67%.(6)
These studies do not prove cause and effect. And it should be noted that a recent expert review concluded there is not enough evidence to say that artificial sweeteners cause metabolic changes or obesity in children.
So there’s the rub. Artificial sweeteners may or may not have negative health effects. Artificial sweeteners may or may not induce overeating and overproduction of insulin. Artificial sweeteners may or may not make you fat.
I don’t know about you, but I think an apple and a cup of sweet licorice or ginger tea sounds nice right about now.
For full references and additional information visit here.
Latest posts by Suzanne Dixon (see all)
- Is Your Acidic Diet Killing You? - September 25, 2015
- 3 top phytonutrients you can’t live a healthy life without - July 19, 2010
- How U.S. Dietary Guidelines Fail You - July 9, 2010