The Scoop on Artificial Sweeteners
By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes are some of the most controversial food products. They contain no or very few calories but still impart a sweet taste to foods and beverages.
While some studies have linked artificial sweeteners to negative health effects, most health experts deem them safe. Plus, they have been used for decades by those who are trying to eat less sugar, manage their diabetes, cut calories, and/or lose weight.
There are several different types of artificial sweeteners, including the well-known varieties aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low).
You can find artificial sweeteners in nearly every grocery store, restaurant, or coffee shop. They are added to baked goods, candies, beverages, ice creams, chewing gums, and even canned fruits.
But what does the research say about artificial sweeteners? Are they safe, or should they be avoided? Here is a breakdown of everything you need to know about these sweeteners.
Common Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that are used in place of sugar to add sweetness to foods. They are considered to be several hundred or thousand times sweeter than sugar, but they contain no or very few calories.
Technically, artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitutes, or products used in place of sugar. Other sugar substitutes include sugar alcohols and low-calorie sweeteners derived from “natural” sources, such as stevia and monk front.
Here is a list of common artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes:
Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal): 200 times sweeter than table sugar. Used to flavor beverages and foods, usually as a tabletop sweetener.
Acesulfame potassium (Sunett): 200 times sweeter than table sugar. Found in frozen desserts, candies, baked goods, and beverages.
Monk fruit: 100-250 times sweeter than table sugar. Derived from a melon plant native to Southern China. Difficult to find, but has become more popular in recent years.
Neotame (Newtame): 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar. Used in cooking and baking and found in processed foods.
Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low): 700 times sweeter than table sugar. Found in chewing gum, baked goods, canned fruit, jams, and candies. Commonly used as a tabletop sweetener.
Sucralose (Splenda): 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Used in cooking and baking.
Sugar alcohols: Common sugar alcohols include xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and erythritol. Typically derived from sugar but contain fewer calories. Added to candies, ice creams, and other commercial goods.
Stevia (Truvia or PureVia): 200-400 times sweeter than table sugar. Commonly found in beverages. Since it is extracted from a “natural” source (the South American stevia plant), stevia can be used in products labeled with “no artificial sweeteners.”
Artificial Sweeteners, Appetite, and Weight
Since most artificial sweeteners do not contain calories, they are commonly used by people who are trying to decrease calorie intake and lose weight.
In theory, artificial sweeteners should satisfy your sweet tooth without packing on the pounds. A win-win, right? Not exactly.
Several studies have shown that artificial sweeteners may actually increase appetite, lead to overeating, and cause weight gain. This is likely because when humans consume something sweet that does not have calories, they may not feel fully satisfied and in turn seek more food or sugar (1).
In fact, one study that followed 3,682 adults over eight years found that those who drank artificially sweetened beverages had significantly higher body mass indexes (BMIs) than those who did not regularly consume these drinks (2).
Artificial Sweeteners and Blood Sugar
In addition to those who are trying to lose weight, people with diabetes may turn to artificial sweeteners to help with blood sugar control.
Since artificial sweeteners do not contain any actual sugar, they do not raise blood sugar (6, 7). This makes them particularly attractive to people with diabetes who want to prevent spikes in blood sugar.
Some people may even eat large amounts of artificial sweeteners to make up for the other sugary foods they are trying to limit. What’s more, food companies that make “sugar-free” products marketed towards people with diabetes or blood sugar issues often use artificial sweeteners to make their products enjoyable.
However, there is almost no research on the health effects of long-term use of artificial sweeteners. It is therefore unclear if regularly consuming sugar substitutes is safe, even though they do prevent blood sugar spikes.
Other Concerns with Artificial Sweeteners
One of the most common myths surrounding artificial sweeteners is that they cause cancer. However, studies in humans have not found a link between artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of cancer (8, 9).
That being said, artificial sweeteners may be associated with other negative health effects, including disruptions to gut bacteria (10). These changes in gut bacteria composition may be associated with obesity and weight gain, but research is limited (11).
Finally, some artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes may cause unwanted side effects, including gas, bloating, and headaches. In particular, sugar alcohols are known to cause digestive problems, including diarrhea, when eaten in large amounts. However, the side effects of sugar substitutes appear to depend on the person.
Should You Use Artificial Sweeteners?
Overall, current research suggests that artificial sweeteners may be linked to increased appetite, weight gain, and possible disruptions to gut bacteria. However, more high-quality studies in humans are needed to fully understand the health effects of artificial sweeteners.
While most experts claim that sugar substitutes are generally safe, they should still be used with caution. The long-term effects of artificial sweeteners are unclear, and it’s possible they may do more harm than good.
Even though artificial sweeteners are helpful for people who are trying to cut back on sugar, there are other techniques that can help decrease your intake of and cravings for sugary foods. After all, relying on artificial sweeteners may actually make you crave and consume more sugar and calories in the end.
Tips for Cutting Back on Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Instead of replacing sugar-sweetened beverages or sugary foods with artificially sweetened options, try gradually cutting back on these foods.
For example, if you love bottled sweet tea with lemon, try making your own iced tea with fresh lemon wedges and a small amount of honey or real sugar instead of getting a “sugar-free” variety made with sugar substitutes. You may find that you like this version better and may eventually enjoy it without any sweeteners at all.
If you already use a lot of artificial sweeteners in beverages and foods, try using fruit or moderate amounts of honey, maple syrup, or real table sugar to add some sweetness instead. Even though these options may not taste as sweet as the sugar substitutes you are used to, they will actually satisfy you more in the long run.
Furthermore, aim to incorporate complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats at every meal. This will help balanced your blood sugars so that you experience fewer cravings for sweet foods with sugar or artificial sweeteners that give a quick energy boost.
Other helpful tips for preventing sugar cravings and a reliance on sugar substitutes include staying hydrated, making sure to eat enough protein at meals, and getting quality sleep for at least seven hours a night.
Check out these other articles on reducing cravings, improving sleep, kicking your soda habit, and staying hydrated to help you improve your energy levels and reduce your desire for sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Note from Healthy For Life Meals: Our meals are based on fresh, whole foods, are low in added sugar, and do not contain any artificial sweeteners. They are balanced and satisfying to help you reduce your cravings for sugars and sugar substitutes. Get started with one of our plans today to reap the benefits of a truly healthy diet.