The main problem with the artificial sweeteners vs. sugar controversy is that we know perfectly well how detrimental(1) sugar can be for our health. It causes insulin intolerance, tooth decay, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity. Still, there is not enough scientific data on the effect of artificial sweeteners on our health.
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Do sweeteners cause metabolic syndrome? Can they stimulate hunger? Are they safe for our gut microbiome and health overall? And are there any other advantages of artificial sweeteners apart from their low-calorie density? Let’s try to find out.
In the U.S., there are only eight artificial sweeteners permitted(2) by the government. They are frequently used in food and even mouth personal hygiene products and can be found all around the world. These are:
Some artificial sweeteners are not considered high-intensity and are also approved by FDA. These are sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol, and maltitol. They are sugar alcohols that still contain calories and thus are not as efficient in creating a calorie deficit as the sweeteners listed above.
Even though the government approves some sweeteners, there are still limitations on their use. Thus, FDA has established the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of the sweeteners. If you keep up with the recommendations and don’t exceed the acceptable volumes, you won’t see any side effects of consuming sweeteners.
Overdose of anything, including water or salt, can lead to serious health problems. The same is with sweeteners. The most frequent symptoms of their overconsumption are nausea, diarrhea, bloating, migraines, headaches, and dizziness.
Cases of personal intolerance and high sensitivity to some components of various sweeteners are also possible. The allergic symptoms can include swelling and hives(3).
Nutritionists still debate whether artificial sweeteners can cause health risks. Even though large meta-analyses(7) of studies and surveys show no link between particular health issues and risks with the sweeteners consumption, scientists emphasize that this topic is not yet well-researched and more surveys should be conducted before we can make a conclusion.
Disclaimer: More professional surveys should be conducted to prove or debunk some beliefs about artificial sweeteners. Information given in this paragraph is primarily rumors, speculations, and disingenuous research.
The myth, linking artificial sweeteners to cancer has arisen after the 1970s study(4) on mice. The mice were fed high dosages of cyclamate and saccharine for up to two years. The subjects have discovered bladder tumors. After this study, cyclamate was banned from the U.S. market.
When scientists have provided this data to the public, they haven’t emphasized one crucial detail. That mice are not humans. Today we know that mice and humans metabolize saccharine and other sweeteners differently. Moreover, multiple studies(5), including the analysis(6) of almost 600,000 people, have demonstrated no correlation between artificial sweeteners consumption and cancer.
Cyclamate is still banned in the USA despite studies showing this sweetener’s safety. And all the charges against the FDA-approved sweeteners in increasing cancer risks have been dismissed. In simple words, no, artificial sweeteners do not cause cancer!
Some dietitians(8) assume that non-nutritive sweeteners can cause hunger urges and sugar cravings. They explain this phenomenon by the fact that when you consume something sweet, your brain is ready to obtain energy, and when it doesn’t, it urges you to eat calorie-dense foods.
The University of Sydney research(9) of 2016 has suggested that consuming sweeteners can make you eat more because it stimulates hunger. This is due to the link between the reward centers and energy content centers in our brains.
What makes these speculations even worse is that some peer-reviewed scientific journals like Physiology and Behavior publish papers like “Oral stimulation with aspartame increases hunger.” And when we look inside the article, we see that the research was conducted on a group of ten males and ten females, and the supposed hunger increase equals 0.3% to 0.5%, which depends on multiple factors, including the sex of the subject. But the name of the article must have made you alert, right?
With this being said, it’s worth mentioning that more reliable randomized controlled trials conducted by CHOICE(10) on a large group of obese or overweight people have demonstrated that the sole replacement of caloric beverages with water or drinks with non-caloric sweeteners results in a weight loss of 2% to 2.5% of body mass.
It looks like we have speculations vs. scientific observations. Choose your side wisely!
Some researchers(11) state that artificial sweeteners can alter the gut microbiome. In particular, sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin were blamed for changing the diversity and the balance of gut microbiota. This disruption can be the reason behind glucose intolerance(12) and metabolic diseases, including type two diabetes.
All research conducted on the ability of artificial sweeteners to cause type 2 diabetes has shown no connection between the two. What makes the myth about artificial sweeteners and diabetes link spread worldwide are observational surveys(13) indicating that the risk of type 2 diabetes is higher among those who drink soft drinks with sweeteners. Fortunately, most of such research states that correlation doesn’t mean causation. Chances are, people with excess body weight and those prone to diabetes are trying to minimize their body mass or diabetes risks by switching their sugary drinks with beverages with artificial sweeteners.
The primary benefit of sweeteners is that they’re not sugar! Non-nutritive sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar and contain almost zero calories. This can surely help with weight loss(14) and maintenance. Also, artificial sweeteners don’t cause tooth decay and don’t make your insulin spike.
Artificial sweeteners are everywhere: in manufactured sauces, canned products, chewing gum, desserts, “diet” products, meats, and even toothpaste. They’re FDA-approved and are a source of sweetness for those who can’t eat sugar because of health issues.
Scientists are still debating about sweeteners’ safety, though. One of the possible explanations for a large number of myths and speculations concerning artificial sweeteners is that they’ve been massively produced and consumed for less than a century, and researchers still don’t have enough data from long-lasting research on large groups proving that sweeteners are safe in a long-term perspective.
The main argument of researchers who’re against sweeteners is that if we don’t see health hazards yet, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
What makes the situation even more complicated is that the sugar industry is a multi-billion business, and food manufacturers are affected by research conducted by scientists. Their interest might interfere with scientific objectivity and lead to a conflict of interests(15).
At the moment, there is no solid scientific evidence against sweeteners approved by FDA. On the other hand, there are numbers and facts which show that consuming non-caloric sweeteners instead of sugar can decrease your daily calorie intake and lead to weight loss.
So, what should you do? Our advice is to minimize the sugar content in your diet and keep your artificial sweeteners consumption in moderation.