We know what artificial sweeteners are, and how they work. But we don’t know – or at least, can’t be completely sure – about their long-term effects, since they haven’t been around for that long in the first place.
That makes it a bit confusing to figure out whether or not they’re alright to consume (through the food products they’re in) or need to be avoided.
Knowing what we do, we’re listing all of it out for you to peruse and then make an informed decision. Read on to get the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners.
1] They’re Considered Safe by Authorities
Countless scientific studies conducted over the past decade have determined that artificial sweeteners are safe (in small quantities) for everyone to consume. That’s why they have been approved by regulatory authorities the world over.
2] They’re Much Sweeter than Sugar
The sweetness of artificial sweeteners cannot be overstated; sucralose, for example, is 600 times sweeter than sugar, because of which only a very small amount needs to be used.
3] They Contain Only a Negligible Amount of Calories
One of their biggest pros is that the intense sweetness comes minus the calories, which makes them a highly practical solution in light of today’s growing problem of obesity, which in turn leads to other lifestyle diseases, like diabetes, heart disease etc – at least in theory.
It’s in practise that things start getting uncertain.
The problem of obesity was expected to reduce with the increased use of artificial sweeteners. Instead, it only got worse.1-4
This made researchers start wondering whether there may be more to artificial sweeteners than previously thought. Could they possibly have other effects on our body?
Researchers around the world have come up with some theories based on their own findings. They suggest that artificial sweeteners do have a larger bearing on our metabolism than we’d earlier assumed, adversely affecting not only the biological processes that are involved in our metabolism, but also those that govern our behaviour.
Here’s a list that summarises their theories on how artificial sweeteners can negatively affect us.
1] They May Increase Food Cravings
As anyone who loves food would agree, we don’t just eat because of our biological need for energy. Food makes us happy.
Sugar, in particular, makes our brain produce feel-good hormones that trigger a “rewarding” sensation, which also makes us feel satisfied after eating.
Artificial sweeteners don’t have this affect on us. The lack of satisfaction leads to further food-seeking behaviour, which (more often than not) increases one’s overall caloric intake.1
2] They Can Reduce the “Good” Bacteria in our Gut
The role that gut bacteria play in our overall health has been becoming increasingly apparent, as a result of extensive research being done in that direction.
We now know that there is a constant interaction between these bacteria and our other organs and systems, via many processes. The relationship is complex, but the conclusion is simple: the higher the number of good bacteria in our gut, the better.
One’s gut bacteria are a reflection of the way one eats – in fact, the bacterial composition of the gut has been proven to differ between lean and obese individuals, based on their dietary habits.5 This makes sense, since obesity is a result of many processes going wrong, including how glucose is metabolised and how much energy is expended in regular activities – both of which are affected by our gut flora.
Artificial sweeteners have been shown to reduce the number of good bacteria in our gut, which is why the long-term use of artificial sweeteners is believed to promote obesity and its related metabolic problems.6
3] They May Lead to Metabolic Problems
This theory suggests that artificial sweeteners can alter something that’s known as our ‘cephalic phase response’: the anticipation of food from the sight, smell, taste or thought of it.
When we’re about to eat something sweet, our body prepares itself for the changes that will occur (such as the raised levels of blood glucose that sugar-rich foods generally cause), by evoking several processes, like the release of gastric juices and secretion of certain hormones.7
But, since blood glucose doesn’t rise with artificial sweeteners, over time, the body stops preparing accordingly.8, 9
As a result, when someone does have sugar, the body is not well equipped to handle the effects. One could say that it suddenly realises that our blood sugar is too high. This shock can lead to metabolic problems – for example, cells may get resistant to insulin, which is what leads to diabetes.
It’s important to mention that some of these studies are based on rats – but we can nonetheless make inferences from this information, based on what we do know about the human body.
For instance, we know through studies that our body needs a functional cephalic response in order to efficiently use glucose from our blood. The fact that sweets containing artificial sweeteners go against our cephalic response (because we know that they don’t raise our blood glucose) does make this theory a likely one. Nonetheless, some argue that the cephalic phase response will allow our body to learn the difference between the sweetness of glucose and that of artificial sweeteners.10
We need more scientific studies to fully understand the health implications of artificial sweeteners. For now, though, it’s best to cut down on non-nutritive forms of sweets (such as desserts and sodas), and switch to nutrient-rich ones (like fruits) instead. Reducing the amount of added sugar as well as artificial sweeteners in our diet eventually decreases our sugar cravings – and that’s indubitably better than worrying about their effects.
1. Yang Q. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 2010, 83(2): 101-108.
2. Miller PE, Perez V. Am J Clin Nutr 2014, 100(3): 765-777.
3. Nettleton JA, et al. Diabetes Care 2009, 32(4): 688-694.
4. AAN. Hold the diet soda? Sweetened drinks linked to depression, coffee tied to lower risk. ScienceDaily 2013 [cited]Available from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130108162135.htm
5. Suez J, et al. Nature 2014, 514(7521): 181-186.
6. DiBaise JK, et al. Am J Gastroenterol Suppl 2012, 1(1): 22-27.
7. Swithers SE. Trends in endocrinology and metabolism: TEM 2013, 24(9): 431-441.
8. Duffy VB, et al. J Am Diet Assoc 2007, 107(2): 237-245.
9. Pepino MY. Physiology & Behavior 2015, 152, Part B: 450-455.
10. Smeets PAM, et al. Nutrition Reviews 2010, 68(11): 643.