Artificial sweeteners are marketed to dieters and diabetics as a low-calorie alternative to sugar. However, a meta-study found that these sweeteners have negative impacts on gut bacteria, appetite, and metabolism.1 Ironically, long-term users of artificial sweeteners were more likely to experience weight gain and obesity than non-users. They also had a higher incidence of weight-related diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease.
Research has indicated that artificial sweeteners can also be neurotoxic, so may be contraindicated for optic nerve issues and brain health.
What are the alternatives to the sweet taste of the five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners: saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin), acesulfame (Sweet One, Swiss Sweet, Sunett), aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), neotame, and sucralose (Splenda)?
The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have given a cautious nod to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease.
The two primary components of aspartame for example, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, are amino acids that are combined in an ester bond. You normally consume these two amino acids in the foods you eat. These amino acids are harmless when consumed as part of natural unprocessed foods. However, when they are chemically manipulated and consumed out of the normal ratios to other amino acids, they can cause problems including headaches, mental confusion, dizziness, and seizures. Chemicals in aspartame can turn in methanol. Since methanol in aspartame has no natural binder, nearly all of it turns into formaldehyde in your body. Formaldehyde (which is used in, among other things, paint remover and embalming fluid) is a poison several thousand times more potent than ethyl alcohol.
Forty percent of U.S. adults consume artificial sweeteners on a regular basis. Surprisingly, 25% of children eat and drink these sugar substitutes regularly. Marketed as a “healthy choice,” artificial sweeteners’ effects on the brain and body are complex. The brain identifies sweetness in the artificial sweeteners, but these do not add any calories when consumed. If it is a zero-calorie drink for example, the body takes in no calories. Artificial sweeteners appear to confuse the body, encouraging a stronger appetite later, which is why people still crave sweets and can still result in contributing to obesity. Also, dieters can rationalize that since they “saved” calories on an artificially-sweetened food, they can indulge in a high-calorie food without consequences.
Artificial Sweeteners Harm Gut Bacteria
Gut bacteria is getting more attention in the scientific community. A 2014 article in Scientific American explored how gut bacteria affect obesity. The more diversity of microbes, the less likelihood of obesity.2 A diet high in processed foods results in less gut bacteria diversity. A study found that rats who were given gut bacteria from an obese twin became fatter; their counterparts given bacteria from a matching thin twin did not. In another study, mice with obese gut bacteria ate a “Western diet”: few fruits and vegetables, low fiber, high fat. They gained weight more easily. Then, they were put in the same cage with average mice, but their unhealthy diet prevented healthy bacteria from flourishing in their digestive tracts.
Another Scientific American article, called “Artificial Sweeteners May Change Our Gut Bacteria in Dangerous Ways,”3 described an Israeli experiment that compared rodents drinking artificial sweeteners versus sugar water. Blood sugar levels in the artificial sweetener group became abnormally high. Treating the subject animals with antibiotics wiped out their gut bacteria, and they returned to normal when given a healthy diet.
Tips for Getting that Sweet Taste
- Add orange slices to ice water instead of pouring a soda.
- Eat more whole fruit. It contains fiber that slows down sugar absorption.
- Raw honey has antioxidants; black strap molasses contains iron. Use in moderation.
- Consume small amounts of real sugar in dishes that contain nutrients, such as tarts and cobblers.
- If the ingredients say, “high fructose corn syrup,” don’t eat or drink it. This highly processed ingredient is linked to weight gain and obesity.
- Try natural low-calorie sweeteners like xylitol, erythritol, and stevia in moderation.
- Prepare tasty foods that do not come out of a package. Appreciate the taste of natural foods.
Up Next: Why Cut Down on Sugar and learn more about Diabetes.
- CMAJ July 17, 2017 vol. 189 no. 28 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390. “Non-nutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies” by Meghan B. Azad et.al ↩
- “How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin” by Claudia Wallis. Scientific American, June 1, 2014 ↩
- “Artificial Sweeteners May Change Our Gut Bacteria in Dangerous Ways” by Ellen Ruppel Shell. Scientific American, April 1, 2015 ↩