Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Helping or Hurting Your Diet?

What could be wrong with artificial sweeteners? They make food taste sweet without the calories you'd get from sugar. And, according to the standards for food additive safety, they don't appear to increase cancer risk.

Artificial sweeteners have been around for awhile. Saccharin was discovered in 1879. Initially saccharin was used mostly for diabetic foods, to help people with Type 1 diabetes control carbohydrate intake. Cyclamates were identified in the 1930's, and used in some of the first diet soft drinks, like Fresca. Aspartame, which was discovered by accident in a chemical lab, is still widely used in soft drinks and foods. Sucralose and stevia are popular new "natural" sweeteners.

These sweeteners don't have much in common other than the sweet taste. Chemically they are very different from each other. These chemical differences make them work better or worse in certain types of foods. Some have unusual or unpleasant after-tastes.

Artificial sweeteners are all tested for safety for use as food additives. The definition of "safety" is limited to cancer risk, although there are other side effects that could be objectionable or unhealthy.

Artificial Sweetener Controversy

Artificial sweeteners are promoted as weight loss aids, but some researchers suspect that artificial sweeteners actually make weight gain and obesity worse. Animal research suggests that sweet tastes, whether from sugar or artificial sweeteners, tells metabolism to get ready to digest carbohydrates. Hormones are secreted, but if real calories never show up, there's nothing for the hormones to do. When this effect happens over and over, day after day, metabolism is disrupted.

Hunger/satiety signals aren't fooled by artificial sweeteners.

Fake sweeteners do not trigger satiety or brain reward signals. If you were hungry before drinking a diet soft drink, you're still hungry. These effects could actually drive people to eat more, to make up for the lack of real calories, disrupted hormones and lack of satiety. Companies that manufacture artificial sweeteners object to these ideas.

Other possible explanations for why artificial sweeteners don't seem to be helping with the obesity epidemic.

People who choose artificially sweetened foods are already obese, and are trying to lose weight. However, they think artificially sweetened foods give them an excuse to eat high calorie treats, because they've "saved" calories. Unfortunately, rewarding yourself with a 600 calorie ice cream sundae after saving 150 calories by drinking an artificially sweetened soft drink doesn't result in calorie reduction.

The link between artificial sweeteners and obesity is not a cause, it's an effect of obesity. When someone is told by their medical provider that they are at risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease. or hypertension because of their weight, they switch to artificially sweetened foods and beverages.

Only two things are certain:

  1. The controversy isn't going away.
  2. Artificial sweeteners aren't going away.

Meanwhile what should you do?

  • The occasional diet soft drink or low calorie treat aren't likely to cause problems, assuming the rest of your diet consists of whole foods, with plenty of high fiber plant foods.

  • If you're struggling with weight, while downing countless artificially sweetened beverages and foods everyday, you may want to rethink that strategy. There's absolutely no need to drink syrupy-sweet beverages, regardless of the sweetener. If you're thirsty, drink water.

  • If you know you're one of those people who think the health halo of a low calorie food gives you permission to indulge in high calorie treats, you need to re-think that strategy.

  • If your sweet tooth has taken over your food choices, you need to re-think that. How to tell? If you think a banana or fresh blueberries or peaches are bland, your taste buds have been hijacked by sweeteners.

Originally published on 23 July 2013
Updated on 6 September 2019

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Alcohol & Other Beverages/Pop & Soda Weight Loss/Sugars & Sweeteners

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