The Low Down on Artificial Sweeteners

In the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of concern that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. Although research in the 90s led the FDA to approve five sweeteners* without a cancer warning, if you’re like me, you have lingering doubts about putting something known to be “artificial” in your body. Is there true cause for concern?

Like most things, artificial sweeteners are best consumed in moderation. These substances–created in a laboratory setting–are anywhere from 30 to 8,000 times sweeter than natural sugar, so a little goes a long way. Be aware that certain artificial sweeteners have been found to cause unpleasant side effects; namely headaches from aspartame, and diarrhea from sorbitol, Lactitol and mannitol (sugar alcohols).

Here’s what I found most surprising and concerning: If you are consuming artificial sweeteners in an effort to lose weight, research has found that doing so may be associated with weight gain and an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes. Scientists believe this is due to the stimulation of taste receptors in our esophagus and stomach. Just like sugar, artificial sweeteners trigger these sensors that in turn cause the pancreas to release insulin, the hormone that tells our cells to absorb sugar (glucose). But what if there’s no glucose to absorb?

Diet-SodasResearchers think that the body gets confused when it senses sweetness but there are no corresponding calories. For example, when you drink diet soda, two things may result:

    1. The soda triggers your taste receptors leading to a false insulin spike that may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
    2. Your body is confused by the lack of calories, and you therefore feel hungrier and go on to eat more than you would had you not had the diet soda.

Susan Swithers, a behavioral neuroscientist at Purdue University co-authored a study that supports these findings, and says they “might explain in part why obesity has risen in parallel with the use of artificial sweeteners.”

A 4-year study on the consumption of diet and sugary sodas and incidence of type 2 diabetes involved 66,118 women and was published this year in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Their most frightening findings were:

  1. Diet sodas raised the risk of diabetes more than sugar-sweetened sodas.
  2. Women who drank one 12-ounce diet soda had a 33 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes and women who drank one 20-ounce soda had a 66 percent increased risk.

Finally, since the artificial sweetener in soda and other products is so much sweeter than real sugar, your tolerance and taste for sugar is reset, requiring more sugar to satisfy your sweet tooth. So if you have a strong diet soda habit, think about cutting back. If “sugar” is the hook, try gradually reducing your intake of sweet foods and drink, and in a few weeks time you’ll feel satisfied with much less. If caffeine is what you need, switch to coffee or tea (not from a bottle) so that you can control the amount and type of sweetener your consuming. Increase your water consumption and crowd out the number of diet sodas you drink each day. However you tackle it, the most important step is to realize there is no benefit to diet soda – not even for your waistline.

* FDA approved sweeteners:

  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • D-Tagatose (Sugaree)
  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)

SOURCES “The Truth on Artificial Sweeteners” “Artificial Sweeteners and Other Food Substitutes are Dangerous to your Health” “Artificial Sweeteners”
Jameson, Marni. “Artificial Sweeteners can Spark Not-So-Sweet Problems” Orlando Sentinel, August 29, 2012.
Intent Blog, “How Diet Soda Makes you Fat and Other Food and Diet Industry Secrets, Part 1.