5 Reasons Artificial Sweeteners May Be More Toxic Than Sugar
By: Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD
Blue, pink or yellow—take your pick on which toxic powder to pour into your body. The colorful packets sit on nearly every table of every restaurant in America. Equal (blue) is a combination of aspartame and acesulfame potassium, Sweet n’ Low (pink) which is saccharin, and Splenda which includes sucralose are the three that are most prevalent in our food supply. Other sugar-free sweeteners include stevia leaf extract, monk fruit extract, neotame, and sugar alcohols such as erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol. While stevia and sugar alcohols appear to be safer than the other non-nutritive sweeteners, we don’t know enough about the long-term health implications.
Diets high in added sugars and diets high in artificial sweeteners both negatively impact our gut microbiome, our genes and overall predisposition to disease. The epidemic of disease that’s driven from poor lifestyle choices will not be resolved by replacing sugar-heavy products on grocery store shelves with artificially sweetened products. In many ways, artificial sweeteners can be more toxic than sugar. Read these five ways that artificial sweeteners may in fact be worse than sugar.
- Increases Risk of Cancer
There is an extremely concerning correlation between artificial sweeteners and risk of cancer. This is not new information—the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew about this correlation long before they approved artificial sweeteners in our food supply. A rat study published in the 1970s demonstrated that aspartame may be associated with brain tumors and by 1983 the FDA approved the use of aspartame for food and beverage companies in the US. Since then a total of three animal studies have reported that aspartame may increase risk of cancer and one epidemiological human study conducted at Harvard School of Public Health that found an increased risk of cancer in men but not women. The story is no different with sucralose and saccharin. Many animal studies have shown that saccharin causes cancer in the uterus, ovaries, skin, blood vessels and other organs. Sucralose as well has been shown to cause cancer. The most recent study conducted in 2016 found that the use of sucralose in mice caused leukemia and related blood cancers. To find out more about the associations between artificial sweeteners and cancer, click here.
- Causes Alterations in Gut Bacteria
Aside from fecal transplants dietary changes are the only way to alter your gut bacteria long-term. If you are feeding your gut bacteria saccharin or sucralose then you may be producing more bad bacteria than you realize. This can lead to several concerning health problems such as increased blood sugar levels, weight gain, and inflammatory bowel disease. Research conducted in mice has shown that saccharin, sucralose and aspartame all led to changes in gut bacteria that can cause glucose intolerance and thus, increases risk of Type 2 Diabetes. In addition to altering the strains of bacteria in the gut, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and sucralose may be associated with an increased risk of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis). Some researchers hypothesize that the risk of consuming chemicals like saccharin and sucralose led to significant reductions in gut bacteria which creates an inflammatory response in the gut.
- Increases Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Artificial sweeteners are touted as the ideal replacement of sugar-sweetened beverages by many endocrinologists and diabetes educators but they are far from being the miracle sweetener for diabetics. Some studies indicate that artificial sweeteners may lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Results from a large observational study conducted in 2009 found that daily consumption of artificial sweeteners is associated with a 36% greater relative risk of metabolic syndrome and a 67% greater relative risk of type 2 diabetes compared with non-consumption. Other studies have shown no association between the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages and risk of type 2 diabetes. At the end of the day the most effective solution will always be a whole foods, low glycemic diet.
- Increases Sugar Cravings
Artificial sweeteners are not a good solution for cutting sugar out of your diet. More often than not, they stimulate sugar cravings. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sucrose with saccharin being 350 times sweeter and sucralose 600 times sweeter. Exposing your taste buds to this enhanced level of sweetness does not break a sugar addiction. This is exactly why consumers replace their soda addiction with a diet soda addiction. If you want to improve your diet, cut out the artificial sweeteners and stick with small amounts of added sugars that are naturally occurring in the environment such as raw honey and pure maple syrup.
- Leads You to Eat More Calories
Artificial sweeteners cause people to eat more food throughout the day compared to nonusers. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that overweight individuals who drank diet beverages ate significantly more calories from solid food compared to those who drank sugar sweetened beverages. A more recent study conducted in fruit flies also showed that artificial sweeteners stimulate appetite which led to a 30% increase in caloric intake. Researchers think it’s because after eating something sweet, the brain typically balances the sweet sensation with the energy levels (or caloric value) in its reward center. The consumption of artificial sweeteners leads to a sweet/energy imbalance due to the lack of energy associated with the sweetness. This has been shown to stimulate a conserved neuronal fasting response which can increase a person’s motivation to eat.
Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD is a functional medicine dietitian nutritionist at the first hospital-based functional medicine center in the country and an adjunct instructor in Cleveland, OH. Brigid is a published author of dozens of articles for U.S. News and World Report, the Huffington Post, Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials, and ivillage. When she’s not working she’s usually in her kitchen experimenting with and photographing new recipes for her blog, Beingbrigid.com. She is completely in her element when she is cooking in the kitchen, practicing yoga, listening to her favorite country artists and relaxing with family and friends.