We all get a sweet tooth once in a while — some of us more than others. Highly processed sugars are everywhere and in everything, which means being picky about how often we give in to our sweet cravings matters. Since high amounts of sugar intake can lead to an assortment of health problems and diseases, most experts recommend that we try to skip the sweet stuff when we can.
Some people recommend replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners. You’ve seen the little pastel-colored packets next to the white sugar packets in the little metal dispensers on restaurant tables. They’re available everywhere, but should you really use them to replace your sugar habit?
If you’ve been wondering how to cut back on sugar to improve your health, here’s a deep dive into everything you need to know about artificial sweeteners and their alternatives.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are lab-created food additives made to replace sugar in food and drink products. You can buy many of these sweeteners in the baking aisle of your grocery store. They come in bigger containers for cooking and in little packets for sweetening your coffee. Some are more available for public purchase while others are more common in industrial use.
You’ll find them in many different diet products and even many so-called health products. Diet sodas, juice, sports drinks, sports bars, gum, dessert, and candies are full of these sugar substitutes. Most people are familiar with diet soda and it’s how many people in the western world are used to ingesting artificial sweeteners. But there are so many other products containing these substances, as well.
How Do They Work?
These sweeteners are crafted in a lab to be many, many times sweeter than sugar. They can be hundreds to thousands of times sweeter. This means only a little is needed to be added to the product to give it that sweet taste. They’re also called intense sweeteners for this reason.
Most of them are what is considered to be non-nutritive sweeteners. This means they’re substances that the body can’t break down because the human body doesn’t make the enzymes necessary to do so. These sweeteners fit into the same “sugar spaces” on our taste buds, so our brains interpret the taste as sweet.
However, the body then flushes it out without doing much with it since it’s an unfamiliar substance. These types of artificial sweeteners are considered calorie-free since our bodies can’t break them down.
There is one type of artificial sweetener, called aspartame, that’s categorized as a “nutritive” sweetener since it’s something the body can break down and use for calories. However, since it’s so highly sweet, not much is needed to be added to food so it’s still considered low-calorie enough to be a “diet” food additive. It’s important to clarify that “nutritive” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy for you, as aspartame is still an artificial sweetener made in a laboratory.
Artificial Sweeteners and Toxic Side Effects
Anecdotal evidence and some studies show that many artificial sweeteners have the potential to cause some serious side effects. While there are very few studies that conclusively prove that artificial sweeteners are either safe or dangerous, we do have some studies that show that they put people at an increased risk for certain issues.
We’ll explore some of these risks so you can make an informed choice when buying food products.
Artificial Sweeteners and Diabetes
Often, artificial sweeteners are used in diabetic food products as it’s considered a safer alternative to sugar. Unfortunately, some studies show that artificial sweeteners can cause issues with gut microbiota or, in other words, these sweeteners can increase bad bacteria in your gut. This can, in turn, lead to issues managing blood glucose and insulin levels which can, down the road, increase your risk for type 2 diabetes.
If you already have type 2 diabetes, artificial sweeteners can cause the same effects in the gut, making it harder to manage blood sugar levels and putting you at risk for greater diabetic side effects and problems.
Artificial Sweeteners and Metabolic Syndrome
This disruption of the gut microbiota has a snowball effect on many parts of the body. Since the gut makes many of our hormones and is a significant site of chemical exchange for the body, this disruption can lead to further health disruption and disease.
One of these disease effects is metabolic syndrome, which is a physical issue that can lead to heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. While studies aren’t conclusive (and sometimes even contradictory), some have suggested that drinking diet soda could lead to a 36% increased risk for metabolic syndrome. Others suggest that diet soda might have an opposite effect.
The bottom line here is that artificial sweeteners do possibly increase your risk, so keeping an eye on avoiding them could be a good preventative choice.
Artificial Sweeteners and Gut Health
One thing that has been more conclusively shown is that artificial sweeteners do indeed disrupt your microbiota which, as we learned earlier, has a snowball effect on many facets of your health. From your mental health to your digestive health, and everything in between, gut health is a significant piece of your overall health strategy.
Having a healthy balance of friendly bacteria is crucial to your hormonal health, as well, as the exchange of chemical messengers depends on a healthy internal environment. Essentially, almost every aspect of your body’s functioning depends on your gut health.
For this reason alone, it would be a good idea to skip the lab-made sweeteners.
The other issue with artificial sweeteners is that people with other gut issues, such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), can have exacerbated effects after eating these sweeteners. If you’ve got gut conditions, avoiding artificial sweeteners is a good idea.
Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer
The first artificial sweetener that was made in the 1970s, cyclamate, was immediately banned by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration after it was shown to cause cancer in lab animal studies. Since then, the FDA has allowed other artificial sweeteners to be added to food products, citing them as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, foods.
Other animal studies have shown that some of these newer sweeteners also create a tendency for animals to develop cancer, though these studies haven’t been replicated in humans. It might be safe to err on the side of caution, approaching these sweeteners as probably safe for most people, but a potential cancer risk for others.
Artificial Sweeteners and Dental Health
Many experts say that it’s better for your teeth to eat or drink products that make use of artificial sweeteners, as the bacteria doesn’t break down these sweeteners in the same way that they do table sugar. The idea is that this could reduce tooth decay.
However, a recent study says that sugar-free sports drinks and soft drinks are just as dangerous. Typically, these drinks (and many sugar-free candies) contain acids like citric acid and phosphoric acid, which makes the products taste like tangy fruit. These acids start to break down tooth enamel, though, causing the same kind of decay that regular sugar does.
Generally, the best way to care for your teeth is to just drink water and avoid unnecessary sweet drinks. Get your electrolytes and nutrients from high-quality food instead.
Sugar-free gum is considered harmless to teeth (though it might impact other body systems). Some types of sugar-free gum are even seen as good for teeth, such as natural chewing gum made with xylitol (a naturally-occurring, plant-based alcohol that tastes sweet). This might be a safer alternative to those who have poor reactions to mainstream sugar-free gums.
Seizures, Depression, And Headaches from Aspartame
While studies conducted on side effects from artificial sweeteners are inconclusive, many people report experiencing issues after eating foods or ingesting drinks made with aspartame. These side effects include headaches, seizures, dizziness, depression, digestive issues, bloating, and more.
Scientific studies haven’t been able to prove that many of the reported side effects are indeed linked to aspartame, but they also haven’t been able to prove that they aren’t linked. While anecdotal evidence isn’t considered proof, it is valid when considering preventative measures.
Two side effects that do have convincing evidence include the effect of enhanced depression on those who suffer from mood disorders and seizure issues in children with specific types of seizure disorders.
It’s important to remember that each of us is biochemically unique and will experience interactions with chemicals in our own unique way. Some people will have no side effects or poor health effects from aspartame and others will immediately notice issues. The best choice here is to listen to your body and choose natural whole foods as often as possible.
Safety and Other Side Effects
While the US FDA considers the approved list of artificial sweeteners to be safe (within the reasonable acceptable daily intake or ADI), there are scenarios where they might not be safe.
Any individual with a metabolic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) can’t metabolize certain amino acids in aspartame (phenylalanine). This particular sweetener could be toxic to them.
Additionally, saccharin is part of the sulfonamide family of chemicals. Some people are allergic to this group and might experience common allergy symptoms, including hives, rashes, diarrhea, or issues with breathing.
Another issue is that many of these sweeteners are made using corn and other common allergens. If you’re allergic to these or have any kind of sensitivity to these grains, you might want to skip them entirely.
It’s also important to consider the side effects that can affect just about anyone. These include the serious issues below.
Effects on Appetite
Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners confuse our taste buds and brains by puzzling how we experience sweetness. This can lead to additional cravings that we didn’t have before regularly eating artificial sweeteners, which could lead to increased calorie intake.
There also seems to be an effect among many where they have an increased appetite after ingesting artificial sweeteners. This is usually the opposite effect of what they had in mind since many people eat artificial sweeteners in order to decrease calories to lose weight.
These overly sweet foods can also lead us to want to eat sweeter foods in a higher quantity than before we started eating artificial sweeteners. Generally, studies show that artificial sweeteners have negative effects on many individual’s appetites and it’s probably a good idea to skip them if you’re trying to keep your appetite under control.
Effects on Weight
Artificial sweeteners are often recommended by a dietitian to someone who is trying to lose weight or influence their body weight in some way. Some observational studies have suggested that these sweeteners might actually encourage weight gain, either directly or because of the increased appetite effect that some report.
Other studies show that weight loss is a more common side effect. That said, no study has been able to prove any long-term weight loss effects and can only demonstrate short term losses.
It might be a better strategy to avoid sweet treats of any kind and focus instead on eating whole foods that are full of fiber. You’ll ingest a rainbow of nutrients, feel full for a longer period of time, and be naturally eating lower-calorie foods that come from the earth. Better for you and better for the planet!
Common Artificial Sweeteners
- Aspartame: Common brand names include NutraSweet, Equal, or Sugar Twin. It’s considered to be 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Acesulfame potassium: Additional names include acesulfame K, Sunett, and Sweet One. Also considered to be 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Advantame: Best for cooking and baking since it’s a highly amped up sweetener. It’s considered to be 20,000 times sweeter than sugar!
- Aspartame-acesulfame salt: Common brand names include Twinsweet. It’s considered to be 350 times sweeter than sugar.
- Cyclamate: This is the sweetener that was studied for cancer in animal studies and was subsequently banned by the FDA in 1970. It’s 50 times sweeter than sugar.
- Neotame: Common brand names include Newtame. It’s considered to be 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, which means it’s best for baking.
- Neohesperidin: This sweetener isn’t approved in the US, so you’re unlikely to find it in common American foods. It’s considered to be 340 times sweeter than sugar.
- Saccharin: Common brand names include Sweet’N Low, Sweet Twin, or Necta Sweet. It’s considered to be 700 times sweeter than sugar.
- Sucralose: Common brand names include Splenda. It’s considered to be 600 times sweeter than sugar. Best for baking and acidic food recipes.
Products and Foods with Artificial Sweeteners
There are so many products and foods out there that contain artificial sweeteners. You’ll find them hiding in the most unexpected places. Westerners, and humans in general, really love the taste of sweetness. This means that manufacturers use that taste to mask other flavors that aren’t as desirable. Keep an eye on product labels to be sure that the ingredient list doesn’t include the scientific or brand names of any common artificial sweeteners if it’s your goal to avoid them.
Here are a few places you should look for them while shopping.
- Chewing gum
- Breath mints
- Alcoholic drinks
- Ice cream & ice cream-based desserts
- Sugary yogurts
- Salad dressings
- Low-sugar candies
- Regular candies
- Gelatin desserts and snacks
- Many types of baked goods
- Adult vitamins
- Children’s vitamins
- Tabletop sweeteners
- Children’s snack foods
- Sports drinks
- Soft drinks
- Beverages of all kinds
- No-calorie flavored water
- Fruit juice
- Frozen yogurt
- Children’s electrolyte drinks (Pedialyte)
- “Whole grain” English muffins
- Diet iced teas
- Kettle corn popcorn
- Low-sugar hot chocolate
- Low-carb ice cream
- Reduced-sugar ketchup
- Low-sugar jams and jellies
- Granola and other “healthy” cold cereals
- Whole wheat bread
- Greek yogurt
- “No sugar added” canned fruit
- Chocolate syrup
- Breakfast drinks
- Dried fruit
- Instant, flavored oatmeal
- Yogurt drinks
- Sports drinks
- Crystal Light drink mixes
- Low-carb foods (especially ones that are typically sweet)
This is definitely not an exhaustive list and there are so many other places that low-calorie sweeteners are hidden. Look carefully through each ingredient list and don’t fall prey to the advertising hype of something being “low sugar,” “no sugar added,” “low-carb,” or whatever happens to be the food trend of the year. Typically companies replace whatever ingredient they remove with an artificial sweetener so it will still taste palatable. Pay attention and you’ll find artificial sweeteners everywhere.
An IAWP Graduate’s Perspective on Artificial Sweeteners
“I encourage my clients to use artificial sweeteners very sparingly, if at all, and to work on gradually eliminating them if they cannot do it all at once. I explain how artificial sweeteners amp up our desire for and experience of sweet foods, making us more likely to crave more sugar. While at the same time, they dull naturally sweet foods, like fruits, so we are less likely to be satisfied when eating them. Lastly, we can be fooled by artificial sweeteners, thinking we are saving calories when consuming them, which we then replace with other sweet or unhealthy foods.”
–Laura Albers, Mental Health Therapist and Master Certified Wellness Coach with The IAWP at Albers Mind & Body Wellness
What Are the Health Risks Associated with Artificial Sweeteners?
As mentioned above, most studies aren’t able to prove whether artificial sweeteners are dangerous or safe.
There is some evidence, however, that artificial sweeteners might be linked with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, increased blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and other serious illnesses. Artificial sweeteners likely cause inflammation throughout the body, so diseases that are linked to inflammatory responses are possible.
If you struggle with inflammation, it would be in your best interest to avoid ingredients like artificial sweeteners as much as possible in your diet.
Better Options: What Kind of Sweeteners Are Safe to Use?
Thankfully, nature has given us plenty of delicious and sweet foods to eat that can safely replace table sugar. These can be eaten as part of a whole foods diet, which is the approach recommended at the IAWP. Whole foods nourish our bodies at the cellular level, allowing us to eat a wide array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other nutrients needed for cellular processes. Whole foods make us vibrant and healthy!
Generally speaking, it’s best to reduce your intake of sweet foods, especially if you’re coming from a standard American approach. Modern humans eat far too many sugars of all kinds and our bodies do best when we focus on eating vegetables and other savory foods.
But a sweet treat now and again is always an enjoyable experience!
Here are a few natural sugars and natural sweeteners you can use in your favorite recipes to cut back on processed sugars and to avoid artificial sugars.
- Local raw honey
- Maple syrup (make sure it’s 100% natural and doesn’t include other ingredients)
- Pure, unprocessed stevia
- Monk fruit (luo han)
- Xylitol (and other natural sugar alcohols, like erythritol)
- Yacon syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Apple sauce
- Agave syrup (be careful with this one as studies show that its fructose base could cause health issues)
While it might seem overwhelming to replace foods with artificial sweeteners in them with foods that don’t, you can generally count on natural foods stores to offer products that are 100% natural. You can bake your own treats at home, as well. And don’t forget that eating foods in their whole state is a very healthy way to eat. Try eating a piece of fruit when you’ve got a sweet tooth to see if that will hit the spot. You might find that it will do just that while also providing a nutritional punch!