When artificial sweeteners first came on the market, most people were thrilled.
Finally, we could eat the foods we craved without having to worry about gaining weight.
What a disappointment when we learned that wasn’t necessarily so.
In a 2010 study review, for example, researchers found that participants who consumed these sweeteners were more likely to gain weight than to lose it. Other studies showed conflicting results, but so far, we have no clear-cut research showing that consuming foods and beverages with these sweeteners result in healthy weight management.
Artificial sweeteners aren’t likely to keep you slim, but that’s not their only broken promise. Other studies have suggested that they may be bad for you in a number of ways. We list seven of those below, but don’t worry — there are a number of natural alternatives you can use, instead.
7 ways artificial sweeteners may harm your health
The first artificial sweetener to come onto the market was saccharin, discovered in the late 1870s. It’s 300 times sweeter than sugar, but despite its widespread usage, it’s always been surrounded by suspicion. In 1977, the FDA proposed a ban on saccharin after animal studies linked high doses to an increased risk of bladder tumors.
Later studies, however, prompted the FDA to eventually remove the proposal. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) later classified saccharine as “not classifiable as to the carcinogenicity to humans,” and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) removed it from their Report on Carcinogens.
So saccharin remains in use. It’s not believed to be linked to cancer in humans anymore, but many remain uneasy about how safe it is.
Other artificial sweeteners, as well, have come under suspicion in studies. Here’s what we know so far.
1. they may make you gain weight.
Since artificial sweeteners have no calories, it seems that they would help us lose weight. Some studies have found, though, that they affect the body’s ability to figure out just how many calories we’ve consumed.
In a 2008 study, for example, participants took sips of water sweetened with sugar or sucralose. Sugar lit up those regions in the brain associated with reward, but sucralose didn’t. In other words, sucralose wasn’t as satisfying and actually caused the brain to continue to seek out more sweet things.
In real life, that could mean that after consuming a diet soda, you feel more like eating something else that’s sweet, like a piece of cake or cookie, than you would have had you consumed something with real sugar.
That could result in weight gain, rather than loss.
2. they make you crave more sugar.
Remember what we said about saccharin being 300 times as sweet as sugar?
That means that manufacturers can use much less to create the same level of sweetness in products, which saves them money.
It also means that products sweetened with artificial sweeteners tend to taste sweeter than those sweetened with real sugar.
Dr. David Ludwig, obesity and weight-loss specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Harvard Health: “Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A minuscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes.”
As you consume more foods and beverages sweetened with sugar substitutes, you train your brain to crave more and more sweetness, which can encourage a sugar addiction.
3. they may increase the risk of diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners were once thought to be miracle products for those with diabetes. Finally, people with the disease could enjoy something sweet without spiking blood sugar levels.
Unfortunately, later studies showed that it wasn’t so simple. In a 2014 study, researchers found that artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame could encourage metabolic changes similar to those found in pre-diabetes.
Participants getting the sugar substitutes developed an intolerance to glucose — a condition that results in higher than normal blood glucose levels, the hallmark of diabetes. Earlier studies showed similar results—saccharin-sweetened yogurt produced higher blood sugar levels than did the same yogurt sweetened with glucose.
4. they mess with your microbiome.
We’re learning more every day about the delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut—something we call the “microbiome.” It’s like a little community in there, and the more good bacteria, the better.
How well we are able to digest and get energy from our food is partly determined by this community of microbes in the digestive tract. Unfortunately, it seems that artificial sweeteners can disrupt that community. Studies show that they alter the population of bacteria in our intestines, enhancing the populations of those bacteria that turn food into fat.
The result? Weight gain, high blood sugar levels, and an increased risk of liver and heart disease.
5. they affect hormonal balance.
Studies in humans have found that artificial sweeteners cause changes in the release of a variety of hormones. This is a complicated area of study and scientists haven’t figured it all out yet, but they do know that eating sweet foods causes the body to release insulin, which then helps process and absorb the sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are believed to interfere with this system, causing gradual changes that can negatively affect our health. In one study, researchers found that sugar substitutes affected a hormone called GLP-1. This hormone is involved in controlling blood sugar and helping you to feel full.
Scientists believe these changes may be partially why acesulfame and others can actually lead to diabetes and weight gain.
We have a number of conflicting studies on artificial sweeteners and cancer. Some show a link and some don’t.
The American Cancer Society provides a general overview, after which they conclude that there is no “clear” association between the two, but there remains evidence of a possible link. In 2005, for example, lab studies found that rats fed high levels of aspartame were more likely to develop lymphomas and leukemias, but other studies have found inconsistent results.
Acesulfame, sucralose, and neotame have not been connected with cancer.
7. they may increase the risk of stroke and kidney disease.
We have only a few studies here, but the results are concerning. A 2012 study, for instance, found that daily consumption of diet sodas increased the risk for vascular events, including stroke.
A 2011 study also suggested the artificial stuff may increase the risk of kidney disease. Women who drank two or more servings a day of diet soda were more likely to experience a decline in kidney function. Researchers concluded that drinking that much was associated with a 2-fold increased risk for kidney function decline in women.
what to use instead
Knowing all this, it’s easy to decide that it’s best to stay away from artificial sweeteners. But then what do you do when you’re craving something sweet?
There are a lot of natural types of sugar you can use to sweeten your foods.
- Raw honey
- coconut sugar
- maple syrup
- blackstrap molasses
- banana puree
- brown rice syrup
- real fruit jam
Of course, these all have similar calories to regular sugar. Is there no zero-calorie substitute we can trust?
So far, we have one: stevia. It’s made from stevioside, a compound found in the leaves of the stevia plant. The stevia plant itself is native to South America and has been used there for centuries.
Studies have shown that this sugar substitute is safe. Some have even reported potential health benefits, including antioxidant protection, lower blood glucose levels, and reduced risk of liver damage. We still need more studies to be sure on that, but so far it looks good.
For the purest form, choose stevia leaf and tinctures.