Jasmine Han, PharmD Candidate
Over the last decade, growing interest in health and quality of life has encouraged people to reduce the amount of sugar, salt, and fat in their diet.1 As a result, one of the many health trends that have gained popularity is the use of artificial sweeteners. These products were first introduced to substitute sugar, which has long been associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart-related diseases to name a few.2,3 However, contrary to popular belief, artificial sweeteners may not be as safe and healthy as many may think.
So what are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners, also called non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) are synthetic sugar substitutes that allow for reduced calories in foods and beverages while maintaining high palatability (sweetness). In other words, NNS taste sweet but provide little to no calories on their own. Artificial sweeteners that are approved for use in Canada include acesulfame-potassium, aspartame (Equal,® Nutrasweet®) and sucralose (Splenda®).4 Stevia and steviol glycosides are sweeteners extracted from a natural source and aren’t considered artificial.
Because they allow for an enjoyable experience without the guilt of consuming calories, artificial sweeteners are hugely popular among those who are health-conscious or looking to lose weight.2 In addition, many diabetics who want to avoid sugar prefer sweetened products as a substitute.
But as you may have already imagined, the use of artificial sweeteners is not without risks.
Weight gain and obesity
Unfortunately, the use of artificial sweeteners does not necessarily prevent the negative outcomes associated with sugar.3 Ironically, many studies are now showing that the long-term use of artificial sweeteners is associated with increased weight gain and body fat.1-6 This is quite counterintuitive, considering that food and beverages containing artificial sweeteners often have little to no calories.
To explain this, let’s first understand what happens when you consume sugar-containing products. Typically, your body recognizes calorie intake when it detects sugar in the mouth.2,3 This leads to a response that promotes hormone production and increased energy use.3 This mechanism ensures your body is effective and efficient in using the energy consumed from your diet, lowering blood sugar.3 However, with artificial sweeteners, it’s believed that this response is disrupted,2,3 causing blood sugar to still rise after eating.3 This has a negative impact on your body as it’s associated with decreased metabolism.2,3 With lowered metabolism, your body naturally gains more weight as it uses up less of the calories obtained from food.2,3
Additionally, it’s thought that when the body suddenly senses less sugar, it naturally tries to compensate, by working harder to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. This means that when you have regular, unsweetened products, you may consume more sugar and calories than you normally would.3
Is it true that artificial sweeteners can cause diseases?
Some studies have linked negative outcomes to artificial sweeteners including increased risk of cancers, type 2 diabetes, mental disorders, and many others. However, there isn’t enough evidence to support these claims at this time.1,6
So what should I do?
If you’re trying to avoid both sugar and artificial sweeteners, the next best alternative is natural sweeteners. These include:2
- Coconut nectar
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Sugar alcohols
- Agave nectar
At the end of the day, moderation is key, just like with anything else. For those who want to enjoy the luxury of eating various foods while still pursuing an ideal body weight, we’ve previously written an article on Flexible Dieting that you may find useful.
As always, we hope you learned something new from this article to help you better guide your lifestyle. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Lohner S, Toews I, Meerpohl J. Health outcomes of non-nutritive sweeteners: analysis of the research landscape. Nutrition Journal [serial on the Internet]. (2017, Sep 8), [cited March 4, 2018]; 161-21.
- Qurrat-ul-Ain, Khan S. Artificial sweeteners: safe or unsafe?. Journal Of The Pakistan Medical Association [serial on the Internet]. (n.d.), [cited March 4, 2018]; 65(2): 225-227.
- Shearer J, Swithers S. Artificial sweeteners and metabolic dysregulation: Lessons learned from agriculture and the laboratory. Reviews In Endocrine & Metabolic Disorders [serial on the Internet]. (n.d.), [cited March 4, 2018]; 17(2): 179-186. Available from: Science Citation Index.
- Health Canada
- Burke M, Small D. Physiological mechanisms by which non-nutritive sweeteners may impact body weight and metabolism. Physiology & Behavior [serial on the Internet]. (n.d.), [cited March 4, 2018]; 152381-388
- Tandel K. Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits. Journal Of Pharmacology And Pharmacotherapeutics [serial on the Internet]. (2011, Oct 1), [cited March 4, 2018]; (4): 236-243.