Artificial sweeteners have been all over the news this month. A new study took a look at how four common sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, stevia, and sucralose) influence our health. This is one of the first studies to look at their effect on human metabolism and the results were surprising. Here, we’re breaking it down for you.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners include several low-or-no calorie compounds used to sweeten foods and beverages without adding calories. They typically show up in foods advertised as “sugar free,” “diet,” “free of sugar,” or “zero sugar” which are common choices when making the shift towards healthier lifestyles.
The Food and Drug Administration permits the use of several artificial sweeteners in the US. These include saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-k, sucralose, neotame, advantame, stevia, monk fruit, and sugar alcohols(i.e. mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol).
Fun Fact: in 1879 investigators at Johns Hopkins University discovered the first artificial sweetener, Saccharin (Sweet and Low®). It gained popularity during World War II when sugar rationing increased demand for sugar alternatives. Since this time, a plethora of sweetener options have come to market under brand names such as Equal® (aspartame), Splenda® (sucralose), and Truvia® (stevia).
Are They Healthy?
Currently, artificial sweeteners are approved for use on the basis that they are “safe” for human consumption. However, evidence is building to suggest that they may negatively impact our long-term health and risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
In the most recent study that came out earlier this month, after two weeks of participants consuming artificial sweeteners in small quantities, two of the sweeteners tested (saccharin & sucralose) were associated with altered blood sugar responses, while all four were associated with changes to the gut microbiome.
This is just one study, but it provides important evidence that artificial sweeteners may increase our risk of chronic diseases. These findings are consistent with other studies suggesting artificial sweeteners may not provide the weight management benefits we once thought. Instead, they may be associated with increased body-mass-index (a ratio of height to weight), and cardiometabolic disease risk.
What Can I Do to Cut Back?
A conservative approach may be wise until we have a clearer picture of the possible negative health effects. Additionally, regularly eating sweet tasting foods (regardless of sweetener type) tends to result in craving these foods more often.
So what can you do? Here are a few ideas:
1. Learn to read food labels and ingredients. – Build a habit of checking ingredient lists for artificial sweeteners in foods and beverages you purchase in the grocery store and while dining out. They may be listed under their brand name, or scientific name. When you find them, you may want to choose another option if available, or consume these items in small quantities, infrequently.
2. Eat the “real” sugar option in smaller quantities. – You may choose to go for an item that uses “real” sugar. If so, you can use portion control strategies (weighing, measuring, counting) to consume these foods in smaller quantities.
3. Drink beverages like plain or infused water, homemade seltzer water, or unsweetened teas. – Artificial sweeteners sweeten many of the “calorie free” beverages we love. Plain water is the healthiest choice, but if you prefer to make your water a bit more exciting, try infusing it with fresh fruit or herbs, purchasing a carbonated water maker, or brewing unsweetened teas to enjoy hot or iced.
4. Choose less processed foods more often. – Generally, highly processed, shelf stable, “low calorie” products contain artificial sweeteners. Shifting toward consuming less processed foods – things like whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds, fresh fruits, and vegetables can help reduce the amount of artificial sweeteners and other food additives in your diet.
Have more questions? Want help navigating artificial sweeteners? Our MNT Dietitians can help!
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Low-Calorie Sweeteners [Internet]. The Nutrition Source. 2013 [cited 2022 Sep 21]. Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/artificial-sweeteners/
- Calorie Control Council. History of Saccharin [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Sep 21]. Available from: https://saccharin.org/history/
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