Many of us take advantage of artificial sweeteners in order to cut calories. It seems that mostly we like to consume them in sodas, which fill us up because of the fizziness, and gives us a bit of sweetness at the same time. In this way, we can also seemingly take care of a craving for sugar. We think this hit of “sweet” is going to satisfy, but without the downsides of sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are touted as being inert. Meaning, they do not get picked up in our bodies but instead, pass on through, leaving us guilt free.
A Brief History of Artificial Sweeteners
In the beginning, like back in the 60’s, the FDA began checking out studies done on artificial sweeteners, most notably saccharin. That’s because initially, it was found that feeding mice a boatload of the stuff caused them to get cancer. After being banned for a while, saccharin was eventually deemed safe in 2000.
Meanwhile, some other artificial sweeteners had been approved by the FDA. They are aspartame (1981), acesulfame (1988), sucralose (1998), and then neotame (2014). To those of you who would rather know the commercial names, that would be Equal, NutraSweet, Splenda, and Sweet’N Low. To be clear, the artificial sweetener category does not include natural sweeteners Stevia and Monk Fruit.
Since the first approval, the use of artificial sweeteners has become ubiquitous. Most notably in cereals, puddings, yogurt, cheesecake, gum, children’s vitamins, juices, and, of course, diet sodas.
In spite of FDA approval, however, there has always been quite a bit of controversy and push-back surrounding artificial sweeteners. Much of the research supporting their safety has been questioned, and the means by which they became approved has not always been on the up-and-up. (I would need at least one other blog in order to elaborate.)
In spite of the initial skepticism, it seems that artificial sweeteners have become accepted, and many people consider them a great alternative to sugar.
How About Now?
Lately there have been some studies showing that sugar substitutes do not deserve to be given a clean slate. There will undoubtedly be more studies done in the future, but what has come out so far is definitely worth taking a look at.
Not so long ago, in 2014, a large study was published that had followed 60,000 women for 10 years. Some of these women drank artificially sweetened sodas and some did not. They found that the ones who drank two or more diet drinks a day had a 30% higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and were 50% more likely to die from the disease. Whoa. This is a significant finding.
Caveat: The Trouble with Research
At this point, please bear with me for a couple of paragraphs. I must digress into a “teaching moment.” In a study that gives results like this, you always have to wonder whether the artificial sweetener drinkers had other things going on in their lives that contributed to heart disease. For example, suppose that no-cal soda drinkers also tend to eat more saturated fat? Suppose they are more sedentary than water drinkers? And, statistics show that more artificially sweetened sodas are consumed by overweight or obese individuals than by those of normal weight anyway.
However, good studies that show up in reputable journals do their best to weed out things like that. It’s not perfect, but they can actually use statistical methods to isolate the effect of one variable amongst many possible ones. Or, they often apologize at the end, saying they were not totally able to do that even though they tried. And, almost invariably, they recommend further research be done. Fair enough.
A Closer Look: Brains and Guts
Having said all that, let’s take a look at some other findings.
Several studies have shown that consuming artificial sweeteners leads to weight gain. How? One study published in 2013 called the reason “metabolic derangement.” In other words, artificial sweeteners interfere with the learned responses we have around actual sugar consumption and use of the energy we get from it (in the form of glucose).
The gist of that process is this: The brain feels cheated. It is expecting some glucose, but doesn’t get it. To make up for that, the brain signals the body to consume more calories! Hence the weight gain.
To expand on this, some researchers have done brain scans to find out what goes on in the brain when artificial sweeteners are consumed. Turns out that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners can alter reward pathways responsible for the pleasurable response to food. The tongue registers sweet, but the body does not process any. Several studies have shown an increase in real sugar consumption after consuming artificially sweetened sodas. This has been shown to happen in people who are already overweight AND people who started out as normal weight.
One other area to watch going forward is studies regarding artificial sweeteners’ effect on our guts. Apparently the population of our gut bacteria (the microbiome) can be part of the “metabolic derangement” referred to above. The thought now is that artificial sweeteners can lead to impairment of the insulin response in the gut, which can lead to an increased appetite.
So far, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners has been linked to cardiovascular disease, weight gain and diabetes. It is worth noting that more and more people are becoming either overweight or obese (including children) in spite of the consumption of artificial sweeteners.
The good news is that the bad effects are only seen among people who regularly consume artificial sweeteners. Quashing down the occasional diet soda is not going to hurt.
If you have a sweetness craving, try to wean yourself off the no-cal sodas. Turn to flavored seltzers or something with a small amount of real sugar in it. Your gut, brain, and body will thank you. And you can remind yourself that you can always drink the world’s greatest thirst quencher…WATER!
© 2022 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Sherry Epley | iStock