The Bad News About "Healthy" Artificial Sweeteners

August 18, 2019

"Somehow, these seemingly great sugar alternatives might actually be leading to the very problems people are trying to avoid by choosing them."

As more people become aware of the health risks associated with sugar addiction, people trying to improve their health often turn to products made with artificial sweeteners. These products are marketed as healthier than those containing processed sugar, and they’re low in calories too! But artificial sweeteners may actually be causing the problems we’re trying to solve by taking them.

In today’s Inside Health with Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, we’re taking a closer look at what the most common sugar substitutes are, and how they may be affecting our health. 

Video Highlights

  • Are Artificial Sweeteners Good for You?
  • 01:51: Most Common Artificial Sweeteners
  • 03:35: Two Important Properties of Artificial Sweeteners
  • 05:33: The Real Health Impact of Artificial Sweeteners
  • 06:13: Alarming Statistics About Artificial Sweeteners
  • 08:00: Why Do Artificial Sweeteners Harm Our Health?
  • 08:31: Artificial Sweeteners are Way TOO Sweet
  • 10:02: Artificial Sweeteners are Addictive
  • 10:51: Artificial Sweeteners May Influence Food Choices
  • 11:55: Artificial Sweeteners Trigger Insulin Surges
  • 13:57: Artificial Sweeteners Alter Gut Bacteria
  • 16:57: So What Should We Be Eating Instead?

Are Artificial Sweeteners Good for You?

Artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous. Touted as a miracle cure for people trying to avoid things like diabetes from too much sugar, it seems like products containing artificial sweeteners are found in more and more foods and drinks available. Unfortunately, these types of sweeteners may actually be a trap. In fact, they may even lead to weight gain, and perhaps even diabetes — two of the major things people are trying to avoid when using them!

The Most Common Artificial Sweeteners

They come in many kinds, and are marketed under different names, so let’s just go over the most common ones:

  • Aspartame. This sweetener is found in diet sodas, and you might recognize it as the little blue sweetener packets called Equal.
  • Sucralose. Sucralose can be found in some soda products as well, or if you’re buying it as a sweetener packet, it’ll be the yellow one — Splenda! Splenda has gained popularity over the past few decades as a healthy sugar alternative to use in coffee, baking, and more.
  • Saccharine. This has been around a long time, and can be found in many foods and drinks, as well as the little pink Sweet’n Low packets.
  • Sugar Alcohols. This includes Xorbitol, and Xylotol, which are found in a lot of products like health bars. Sugar alcohols are not ethanol, so they don’t have an intoxicating effect, but they have a sugar component that is alcohol-based. They have less calories than sugar, but they do have some calories.
  • Again, these sweeteners are everywhere — they’re in our foods and drinks, especially foods marketed as “diet” or “sugar-free” foods. You might be surprised at how many foods contain artificial sweeteners as a partial additive.

Two Important Properties of Artificial Sweeteners

Why are these products commonly considered healthy? Well there are two main reasons.

They are calorie-free

All those little packets we talked about — the pink, blue, and yellow sugar substitutes — all contain zero calories! So in theory, having no calories means it shouldn’t have any impact on your weight. Right?

No Sucrose

These products don’t contain real sugars, which are one of the things that can lead to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and other health issues. So it does seem like if you’re consuming artificial sweeteners with no sugars, and no calories, you should be effectively protecting yourself against things like weight gain and Diabetes.

There are many, many people dealing with weight gain and Diabetes, or other health issues having to do with our metabolism. This is an extremely common struggle for a major portion of the population. So a lot of people trying to eat better while trying to kick their sugar habit turn to artificial sweeteners. And you would think that any doctor would approve of alternatives that contain no calories and no sugars. 

The Real Health Impact of Artificial Sweeteners

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The body is a very complex machine, and sometimes things are not as straightforward as we might like. Somehow, these seemingly great sugar alternatives might actually be leading to the very problems people are trying to avoid by choosing them. If you’re someone who uses artificial sweeteners in your weight loss quest or to meet health goals, keep reading, as we talk about why this might happen.

Alarming Statistics About Artificial Sweeteners

According to studies, people who consume 20 diet sodas per week were twice as likely to become obese or develop diabetes as those who didn’t. If 20 per week sounds like a lot, just think how easy it is to crack two open per day, especially if your energy starts to wane in the afternoon. 

In fact, people who consumed only one diet soda per day were found to have a 36% increase in being overweight, and a 67% increase in developing diabetes. Remember, these are people who are drinking soft drinks marketed to be good for dieting!

Researchers also found that people who consumed any amount of artificial sweeteners in foods or beverages, were twice as much at risk for any kind of weight gain. So this isn’t just about diet sodas.

According to research, children who consumed artificial sweeteners were more likely to become obese as adults. This is scary stuff! Parents trying to help their kids stay healthy and do what’s best for them, may be unintentionally setting them up for future health struggles. 

Why Do Artificial Sweeteners Harm Our Health?

So what’s going on here? How can eating sweeteners with no calories and no sugar, be doing more harm than good? Well, there isn’t a definitive answer, as research is ongoing, but scientists have established several compelling theories, such as:

Artificial Sweeteners are Way TOO Sweet

One theory, is that artificial sweeteners cause an overstimulation of our sugar receptors. For example, Aspartame (Equal) is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose (Splenda) is 600 times sweeter than sugar. So when we eat these instead of sugar, we get a supercharge of sweetness to our taste receptors and other sugar receptors in our bodies. Our bodies are designed to like sugar, which is our basic fuel — that’s why our bodies crave sweet fruits. We need sugar to survive! But now we are eating molecules that far exceed the sugar found in nature, which can overstimulate our taste receptors, and possibly cause us to lose our taste for naturally occurring sugars that exist in fruits and vegetables, which are also rich in fiber and nutrients we need.

Artificial Sweeteners are Addictive

We know already that sugar can be very habit-forming, right? That’s why we’re turning to artificial sweeteners to begin with — because our bodies start to crave that sweetness. In fact, animal studies have shown that animals who consume artificial sweeteners, will keep seeking out those sweeteners over the nutrients they need in their diets. So it could be that these sweet molecules get us hooked, and we subconsciously begin to seek them out more frequently. This ties in closely with the third theory.

Artificial Sweeteners May Influence Food Choices

According to this theory, if you’re eating zero-calorie foods with artificial sweeteners, it could result in frequent hunger, and you may find yourself seeking out calories from other sources. So the zero-calorie soft drink could actually be working against you, prompting you to subconsciously add calories into your diet another way.

Artificial Sweeteners Trigger Insulin Surges  

Your brain does not know the difference between artificial sugars and real sugars. So when you brain recognizes the taste of a diet coke, it triggers the mechanism that sends signals to your body alerting it of incoming sugar, and that stimulates insulin production. Insulin is one of the main molecules at play in Diabetes. Its mission is to take sugar from the bloodstream and store it as fat. So when insulin goes through the roof in response to artificial sweeteners, all the blood sugar that should be keeping your body going gets stored as fat. So if your mission with artificial sweeteners is to avoid weight gain, you might be doing yourself a disservice because your brain didn’t recognize the difference, it triggered an insulin surge, and all your blood sugar is being stored as fat, triggering a blood sugar crash. And since your diet soft drink didn’t have any real nutrients or fuel in it, you find yourself needing to reach for something that does have real sugar.

There are studies that show that sweeteners like Sucralose cause insulin surges, so this theory does have documentation. In fact, animal studies have shown that after consuming Splenda, mice develop glucose intolerance, meaning their bodies can’t manage the sugar in their meals. So their metabolisms are directly affected by artificial sweeteners.

Artificial Sweeteners Alter Gut Bacteria

This one has to do with the microbiome — the bacteria that exist in your gut. The microbiome is fascinating. We have billions of bacteria in our body, handling our metabolism, affecting inflammation, mood, and more. Research has shown that the microbiome in people who consume artificial sweeteners starts to change — the kinds of bacteria in the gut are altered, and not in a good way. These bacteria can become more efficient at taking calories out of the food you eat, so you may be absorbing more nutrients from meals, resulting in getting more calories. Fascinating studies have been done involving both humans and lab rats. In one study, researchers transferred bacteria from mice who had consumed artificial sweeteners to mice who had not, and the mice who had not been exposed to artificial sweeteners started to become obese, just because of the change in gut bacteria.

Researchers have also examined the gut bacteria of overweight humans and found that across the board, people who are overweight or suffering from diabetes have abnormal proportions of gut bacteria. By transferring that human gut bacteria to the digestive tract mice, they found that the mice would also start to become overweight. So there is a lot of evidence that these microbiome changes trigger weight gain.

So What Should We Be Eating Instead?

So as you can see, there’s a lot of reason to believe that artificial sweeteners do more harm than good for our health. So then the question is, if we can’t have processed sugar, and we can’t have artificial sweeteners, what should we be eating?

The reality is that we have existed for thousands of years without either processes sugar or artificial sweeteners. If you’re looking to do the best thing for your health and your body, the best option is to stick to whole foods that contain naturally occurring sugars. Your palette will adjust and begin to enjoy the sweetness in fruits and vegetables. If you really want to add sweeteners, choose natural options like non-processed, organic raw honey, and pure maple syrup. These do have calories and they do convert to sugar, but they’re not like the processed sugars and they don’t have nearly as detrimental an effect on your health.

Some of these options may be off the table for some, like people suffering from diabetes, so just make sure to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about the healthiest options to keep your diet nutritious and tasty.

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