Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe? All your doubts cleared!

Packets of Artificial Sweeteners

The notion is artificial sweeteners are “sugar-free” and a must-have for diabetics. If you’re someone who wants to reduce sugar or calories in your diet, then you might have considered using artificial sweeteners as well. But does this popular “weight-loss” ingredient actually work? Are artificial sweeteners safe? Read on to find out!

Sweeteners are various natural and artificial substances that provide a sweet taste to food and beverages. There are two types of sweeteners –  natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners. 

Natural Sweeteners

Natural sweeteners are sweeteners that are unprocessed, chemical-free and exists naturally. These sweeteners provide calories (energy) to your food. Some examples are coconut sugar, raw honey, cane sugar, agave nectar, stevia, molasses and maple syrup. All natural sweeteners (and some artificial sweeteners) are nutritive sweeteners.  Nutritive sweeteners provide calories (or energy) when consumed. 

Sugar Alcohols

Sugars and sugar alcohols are also present naturally in fruits and vegetables. Raw sugar (sucrose) is extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet which then undergoes processing to form refined sugar.

Sugar alcohols are a category of sweet carbohydrates found naturally or processed industrially from other sugars. They are widely used as artificial sweeteners. Some examples of sugar alcohols are sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol, which have fewer calories and are less sweet than sugar.  These are commercially used in chewing gums, candies and throat lozenges. 

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are substances that are used as a replacement for sugars. These are synthetic sugar substitutes but may be derived from the naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) are artificial sweeteners that are zero or low-calorie alternatives to regular sugar (sucrose). They are also known as high-intensity sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than sugar.

artificially sweetened beverages

Artificial Sweeteners: The Rise to Popularity

Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener and was originally synthesized in 1879 by Remsen and Fahlberg.  It is about 300–400 times as sweet as sucrose but has a bitter or metallic aftertaste, especially at high concentrations. It is often used to improve the taste of toothpaste, dietary foods, and dietary beverages. 

There has been a marked increase in obesity across the world and across all sections of society. Research has been blaming it on sugars. Excess sugar consumption has been linked not only to obesity but also to type 2 diabetes, heart disorders, dental problems and some cancers. This has led to masses to seek alternates, thereby leading to continuously increasing demand for artificial sweeteners in the past decade.

Today diabetics and obese individuals across the world use these sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are also popular in the media as a key ingredient for weight-loss.

Types of Artificial Sweeteners

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA regulates artificial sweeteners. The FDA tests a sweetener’s composition and properties, the recommended consumption, and various types of safety studies. For each of the sweeteners, the typical amount used by an individual is well within levels that one can consume safely. 

Currently, five artificial sweeteners are approved by the FDA which are also permitted in India. “FDA approval” means that the FDA has decided the benefits of the approved item outweigh the potential risks for the item’s planned use.

The five approved artificial sweeteners are:

    • Aspartame (Nutritive) – sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal
    • Saccharin (Non-Nutritive)- sold under the brand names SugarTwin and Sweet’N Low
    • Sucralose (Non-Nutritive)- sold under the brand name Splenda
    • Acesulfame K (or acesulfame potassium) (Non-Nutritive)- produced by Hoechst, a German chemical company; widely used in foods, beverages and pharmaceutical products around the world.
    • Neotame (Non-Nutritive)- produced by the NutraSweet company; the most recent addition to FDA’s list of approved artificial sweeteners, neotame is present in diet soft drinks and low-calorie foods.

Health Benefits

Artificial sweeteners are present in a variety of products around us.  These are widely used in processed foods, including baked goods, soft drinks, powdered drink mixes, candy, puddings, canned foods, jams and jellies, dairy products and scores of other foods and beverages. They are also popular for home use. You can even use them in cooking or baking.

They are used by obese and lean, diabetics and non-diabetics, adults and children alike. They are a great option for people looking to cut down calories (and improve the palatability of food) while reducing the risk of dental problems.

Some of the health effects of artificial sweeteners on the body are:

    • Dental Care: Artificial sweeteners don’t cause cavities as they are not fermented by the microflora of the dental plaque. Thus, they are a better option than regular sugar.  An example of a sweetener that can benefit dental health is xylitol. Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, still cause dental problems but much less than regular sugar.
    • Diabetes Management: People with diabetes experience difficulties in regulating their blood sugar levels. By substituting sugar with artificial sweeteners, they can enjoy a varied diet. Though some sugar substitutes release energy, they metabolize more slowly, allowing blood sugar levels to remain more stable over time.
    • Flavour Enhancement: Artificial sweeteners like aspartame intensifies and extends fruity flavours, such as cherry and orange, in foods and beverages. For example, aspartame makes chewing gum taste sweet and more flavorful longer than sugar-sweetened gum.

Artificial sweeteners are attractive alternatives to sugar because they add virtually no calories to your diet. In addition, you need only a fraction compared with the amount of sugar you would normally use for sweetness. 

artificially sweetened food

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recommends limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10% each day. That’s 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000 calorie diet. 

Are artificial sweeteners safe to use?

Dr. Christopher Gardner, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University in California said “While they are not magic bullets, smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help you reduce added sugars in your diet, therefore lowering the number of calories you eat. Reducing calories could help you attain and maintain healthy body weight, and thereby lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes”.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners in the market can increase cancer risk in humans. They also do not increase the risk of other diseases. In contrast, if we consume artificial sweeteners in daily acceptable limits, it can help limit carbohydrate and energy intake. 

Also, all approved sweeteners are safe for pregnant and nursing mothers. However, we recommend the advice of a dietitian to ensure sugar substitutes in the diet meet your desired goals for calories and nutrients.

However, to date, there is no consensus amongst scientists regarding the safe use of these artificial sweeteners.

For a number of years, artificial sweeteners were a popular ingredient for the manufacturing of food. But, their popularity started to decline after consumers discovered that they have negative health effects. 

Side-effects of Artificial sweeteners on the body

A study done in 2005 by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio showed that, rather than promoting weight loss, the use of diet drinks was a marker for increasing weight gain and obesity. Those who consumed diet soda were more likely to gain weight than those who consumed naturally-sweetened soda.

There are other side-effects specific to each artificial sweeteners, for example, aspartame can cause: 

  • Migraines
  • Change in vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia/sleep problems
  • Abdominal and joint pains
  • Change in heart rate
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Seizure
  • Brain cancer

artificial sweetener

Thus, approved artificial sweeteners are safe to consume but only in moderation. We do need further studies to assess the harmful effects of artificial sweeteners when consumed on a daily basis. However, people should use them with caution in certain high-risk situations such as pregnancy, lactation, diabetes, migraine, epilepsy patients and children.

If artificial sweeteners have lesser calories, won’t they help me lose weight?

To answer in brief, artificial sweeteners can’t raise or lower your body weight. Weight loss is only possible when you reduce your total calorie intake. 

Logically, artificial sweeteners should reduce your body weight as you are cutting back on your sugar intake. Right? Not really. 

A double-blind study subjected 55 overweight youths to 13 weeks of a 1,000 Kcal diet with capsules of aspartame or lactose placebo daily. Both groups lost weight, but the difference was not significant. The cause of weight loss was calorie restriction. 

Several large-scale studies such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and the San Antonio Heart Study, have shown a positive association between artificial sweetener use and increases in weight and/or BMI. Artificial sweeteners offer the freedom of consuming food without the calories. Scientists have suggested that this promotes overeating in many individuals which ultimately leads to greater food consumption and weight gain.

Click here to read about diabesity!

Do artificial sweeteners contribute to childhood obesity?
According to Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, artificial sweeteners can change the way we taste the food. He says, “Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A minuscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes”. It is due to this reason that children, who in general have a higher affinity for junk foods, can have a higher risk of addiction to NNS consumption. According to several studies, consuming NNS can promote weight gain and affect cardiometabolic health in children. Thus, with an increasing number of children consuming artificial sweeteners almost regularly, the “safe” use of these compounds should be ascertained.

Although there are some studies that show aspartame can be helpful in weight-loss, most experts agree that sugar substitutes, in general, are neither the cause nor the cure for obesity. So, whether or not you use artificial sweeteners in your diet, you have to reduce your calorie intake to lose weight. Apart from calorie restriction, following a strict diet and exercise routine is essential to weight loss.

Click here to know why low-fat diets may not be good for you!

Conclusion

If you are someone who consumes artificial sweeteners, just remember to have it within the permissible limits. Avoid foods or beverages that have added sugars and make sure that you read nutrition labels for all food products. You should try to widen your choices or use products containing more than one sweetener. Manufacturers selling sweetener blends often use less of each, thus reducing your exposure to any one sweetener.

It’s always advisable to use natural sweeteners instead of artificial sweeteners. The ideal sugars to eat are wild, non-hybrid, seeded fruits, and the natural sugars and starches in living vegetables, trees, seeds, nuts and roots. Health experts should assess the risks and benefits of artificial sweeteners for each individual before recommending their use. So, what do you think are artificial sweeteners safe?

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