Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe to Eat?

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe to Eat?

Artificial Sweeteners - you either love em or you hate em

Camp #1. The Purists

 Many people shudder at the thought of consuming sugar substitutes. You encounter a bunch of pseudoscience and hearsay about food these days, and you tend to hear it much more when the food includes some “artificial” or “non-natural” ingredient.
  • “Diet soda actually makes you gain weight”
  • “They cause addiction
  • “Natural sweeteners are way better for you”

Sound familiar? 

You can guess which group I’m in based on some of the recipes I’ve posted, but like most things in life, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
 
Moderation is key. This principle applies to artificial sweeteners, especially if you regularly suffer from excess bloating or stomach cramping (i.e. IBS).
 
Regardless if you love them or hate them, artificial sweeteners are everywhere. They’ve become so commonplace that no matter how hard you try to avoid them, you may find that things you consume on a semi-regular basis contain some trace of them (e.g. gum, thickeners, candies, medications, supplements, etc.).  
 
So it’s worth learning which sweeteners are safe to consume and which might be best to avoid. 

Camp #2. The Believers

Others view artificial sweeteners as a chance to save a few calories while still satisfying that sweet craving.

 

You can guess which group I’m in based on some of the recipes I’ve posted, but like most things in life, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
 
Moderation is key. This principle applies to artificial sweeteners, especially if you regularly suffer from excess bloating or stomach cramping (i.e. IBS).
 
But whether you love them or hate them, artificial sweeteners are everywhere. They’ve become so commonplace that no matter how hard you try to avoid them, you may find that things you consume on a semi-regular basis contain some trace of them (e.g. gum, thickeners, candies, medications, supplements, etc.).  
 
So it’s worth learning which sweeteners are safe to consume and which might be best to avoid. 

What's an artificial sweetener?

A sweetener that has no calories? No nutritional value? Seems too good to be true. And it kind of is… kind of.

Artificial sweeteners are labeled as either zero calorie or low calorie for 2 main reasons.

1. They aren’t easily broken down by our digestive tract

Many sweeteners have chemical structures similar to sugar. Similar enough to trick our taste buds into thinking they’re coming into contact with sugar but different enough for our bodies not to know what to do with. Our gut lacks the necessary enzymes to properly digest and absorb artificial sweeteners, which is what effectively makes them “zero calorie”.

Take sucralose for example. When you compare the two chemical structures, they’re almost identical… almost.

Sucrose

Sucralose

And because they pass through our digestive tract without being absorbed, many experience a “laxative effect” after consuming something that’s been artificially sweetened. This can leave people with pain and discomfort.

2. They tend to be much sweeter than sucrose

Because they’re perceived as being much sweeter than table sugar, food companies need only add a fraction of the sweetener in question than had they used sugar.

And, because they’re added in very small quantities, the potential health risks associated with artificial sweetener consumption are effectively nullified.

The only class of sweeteners that tend to be less sweet than sucrose are sugar alcohols (e.g. Erythriol, Sorbitol, Maltitol, anything ending in “-ol” really).

The 7 most common FDA-approved sugar substitutes are:

  1. Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K)
  2. Aspartame
  3. Saccharin
  4. Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle (Luo Han Guo) fruit extracts (SGFE)
  5. Steviol Glycosides (Stevia)
  6. Sucralose
  7. Sugar alcohols (e.g. Erythriol, Sorbitol, Maltitol, etc.)

Are they safe to consume?

Despite what online articles may claim, artificial sweeteners, when consumed in the amounts recommended by the FDA, aren’t toxic and they don’t cause cancer.

And yet researchers are still split on the topic of weight gain vs. weight loss when it comes to artificial sweetener consumption.

Are artificial sweeteners making you fat?

If you ask google if artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain, you’ll uncover a slew of articles claiming that artificial sweeteners are actually linked to weight gain – not weight loss.
 
And from what I can tell, they’re not completely lying… but they are stretching the truth… a lot.
 
And I try to be objective when I look into issues of contention, and here’s what I’ve been able to find.

The case against artificial sweeteners:

They could lead to an increase in waist circumference. 

Researchers uncovered a non-negligible dose-dependent relationship between diet soda intake and increased waist size in a longitudinal study by Fowler et al. (2015) examining 749 adults over the age of 65. The more diet soda consumed, the larger the change in waist circumference.

They could lead to an appetite increase.

 Additionally, studies conducted by Tordoff et al. and Rogers et al. suggest that exposure to artificial sweeteners may increase appetite. This could indirectly result in weight gain over time.

The case for artificial sweeteners:

They could make you lose weight over time. 

Hunty et at. reported that those who consumed food products sweetened with aspartame instead of sucrose reported a significant reduction in overall calorie intake (about 2 cans of coke) and bodyweight. Raben et al. reported similar findings following individuals over a 10 wk period. Overweight individuals who regularly consumed artificial sweeteners over sucrose had small but significant decreases in fat mass. 

They can help satisfy sweet-tooth cravings without increasing appetite. 

A review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Rolls, 1991) reported that aspartame consumption was either not found to increase overall food intake or led to a moderate reduction in overall food intake. Artificial sweeteners have not been found to increase the hunger hormone ghrelin (Steinert RE et al.  2011).

How can I use them to reach my weight loss goals?

I won’t lie to you, it doesn’t really matter if you opt for sugar or splenda. You’ll lose weight if you eat less calories than your body expends. You’ll gain weight if you eat more calories than your  body expends. It’s that simple.

So it’s a good idea to limit your sugar intake if you’re trying to lose weight. Enter artificial sweeteners.
 
I prefer to eat my calories. Adding a packet of sugar to my nighttime tea may make it taste better, but it won’t add to my feeling of fullness, and when looking to lose weight, that feeling of fullness is key.
 
If adding low-cal syrup to my morning oats every day helps me avoid the urge to eat a slice of chocolate cake for dessert, you bet I’ll drizzle that sh*t on like there’s no tomorrow. 
 
And that’s how you can use artificial sweeteners to aid in fat loss. If you know you crave sugar at night or you like to end a meal with something sweet, picking a low-cal option may be best for you if you’re looking to diet down. Not necessary, but helpful.
 
Of course, many fall into the “I had a salad for lunch so I can eat cake for dinner” mentality… 
If you opt for Coke Zero, you may overcompensate by consuming more calories throughout the day than had you opted for the sugar-sweetened Coke in the first place (Naismith et al., 1995). 
 
But as long as overall calorie consumption is in check, there’s no reason not to include artificial sweeteners in your diet. Just don’t overdo it of you might encounter some digestive issues.
 
At the end of the day, if you lower your overall calorie intake, you’ll end up losing weight. 

If you want to use artificial sweeteners to help save off your sweetness cravings, you can do so while still staying on track with your weight loss goals. It’s kind of as simple as that.

If you’d rather avoid artificial sweeteners because you find them unsettling, that’s perfectly fine too. 

And if you’re able to kick the habit of reaching for sweeteners, be they “artificial” or “natural”, you’ll find that fruits and vegetables will start to taste much sweeter over time. You may even stop experiencing sugar-cravings altogether..

My Sources

  1. De la Hunty, A., S. Gibson, and M. Ashwell. “A review of the effectiveness of aspartame in helping with weight control.” Nutrition Bulletin 31.2 (2006): 115-128.
  2. Favaro-Trindade, Carmen Sílvia, Glaucia Aguiar Rocha-Selmi, and Milla Gabriela dos Santos. “Microencapsulation of Sweeteners.” Microencapsulation and Microspheres for Food Applications. 2015. 333-349.
  3. Fowler, Sharon PG, Ken Williams, and Helen P. Hazuda. “Diet soda intake is associated with long‐term increases in waist circumference in a biethnic cohort of older adults: The San Antonio longitudinal study of aging.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 63.4 (2015): 708-715.
  4. Fowler, Sharon P., et al. “Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long‐term weight gain.” Obesity 16.8 (2008): 1894-1900.
  5. Kim, Yeonsoo, et al. “Combination of erythritol and fructose increases gastrointestinal symptoms in healthy adults.” Nutrition research 31.11 (2011): 836-841.
  6. Naismith, D. J., and C. Rhodes. “Adjustment in energy intake following the covert removal of sugar from the diet.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 8.3 (1995): 167-175.
  7. Raben, Anne, et al. “Sucrose compared with artificial sweeteners: different effects on ad libitum food intake and body weight after 10 wk of supplementation in overweight subjects.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 76.4 (2002): 721-729.
  8. Rolls, Barbara J. “Effects of intense sweeteners on hunger, food intake, and body weight: a review.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 53.4 (1991): 872-878.
  9. Spencer, Marisa et al. “Artificial Sweeteners: A Systematic Review and Primer for Gastroenterologists” Journal of neurogastroenterology and motility vol. 22,2 (2016): 168-80.
  10. Steinert RE, Frey F, Töpfer A, Drewe J, Beglinger C Br J Nutr. 2011 May; 105(9):1320-8.
  11. Sylvetsky, Allison C et al. “Nonnutritive Sweeteners in Breast Milk” Journal of toxicology and environmental health. Part A vol. 78,16 (2015): 1029-32.
  12. Tordoff, Michael G., and Annette M. Alleva. “Oral stimulation with aspartame increases hunger.” Physiology & behavior47.3 (1990): 555-559.
  13. Rogers, Peter J., and John E. Blundell. “Separating the actions of sweetness and calories: effects of saccharin and carbohydrates on hunger and food intake in human subjects.” Physiology & behavior 45.6 (1989): 1093-1099.
  14. The Food and Drug Administration. (2016) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) Determination of Monk Fruit Juice Concentrate as an Ingredient in Conventional Foods and in Infant and Toddler Foods. GRAS Notice (GRN) No. 627 

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