How do artificial sweeteners affect the body?
Artificial sweeteners are food additives that are present in sugar-free drinks , ready meals (especially low-fat ones), desserts and chewing gum. Although these sweeteners have zero calories, research has found that they may be associated with a range of health problems.
Today I am going to look at 4 reasons why artificially sweetened drinks may affect your health. These include:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Weight gain
- Toxicity issues.
1. Increased risk of Cardiovascular disease (CVD)
Aspartame (also known as NutraSweet) is an artificial sweetener that is estimated to be around 200 times sweeter than sucrose (sugar) and is commonly used to sweeten sugar- free drinks. Despite being approved as a food additive in 1994, aspartame remains controversial since it has been associated with an increased risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure).
Research has shown that consuming two or more 12 fl oz cans of sugar-free juice daily increases your chances of developing high blood pressure, which can ultimately lead to a stroke.1 This particular study also found that drinking two or more cans of sugar-free juice daily can increase the risk of ischaemic stroke (where the blood supply to the brain is cut off by a blockage) by 31%.
2. Diabetes risk
As previously mentioned, artificial sweeteners do not contain any calories and are not believed to raise blood glucose levels. This means they are often seen as a suitable option for diabetics to help keep blood sugar levels in check and avoid a surge in levels.
Recent research, however, has found that regular consumption of artificially-sweetened drinks can be harmful to those with type 2 diabetes.
It has been found that regular artificial sweetener consumption may increase the risk of diabetic retinopathy in those with type 2 diabetes.2 Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition that damages the retina and is caused by elevated blood sugar levels. If left undiagnosed or untreated it may lead to blindness.
For those who don't have diabetes, sugar free drinks could also be problematic.
Older research has found that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners is associated with high-fasting glucose levels and a bigger waist circumference.3 Both of these are components of metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors that increase the chances of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Three risk factors for metabolic syndrome include:
- A waist circumference equal to or greater than 102cm in men, and equal to or greater to 88cm in women.
- Blood pressure above 130/85 mmHG.
- A fasting glucose level above 110 mg/dl (6.1 mmol/L).
All of these risk factors have been associated with regular consumption of artificial sweeteners. Therefore, artificial sweeteners may contribute to metabolic syndrome which can progress to type 2 diabetes.
More recent research has shown that regular consumption of artificially-sweetened drinks is linked to insulin resistance.4 Insulin is a hormone which is secreted by your pancreas and it helps the body to use glucose effectively for energy. When your body becomes resistant to insulin, your cells stop responding correctly to it. This prevents glucose from entering the cells, leading to a rise in the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.
If insulin resistance goes untreated it can lead to type 2 diabetes. This, again, suggests that artificial sweeteners have a negative impact on health and could potentially lead to diabetes.
So, research over the last ten years suggests that artificial sweeteners have a negative effect on diabetes.
3.Weight gain and obesity
Diet drinks are not always best!
Weight gain and obesity go hand in hand with diabetes and metabolic syndrome. There are a few theories as to why artificial sweeteners can cause weight gain. Firstly, artificial sweeteners may change the balance of bacteria in your gut.
Those who regularly consume artificially-sweetened drinks may experience changes to their gut bacteria. Research has shown that consumption of the artificial sweeteners saccharine and aspartame can lead to altered gut bacteria, which impairs glucose tolerance. Impaired glucose tolerance occurs when blood glucose levels are higher than normal, and this is linked to pre-diabetes.
Those with impaired glucose tolerance are at greater risk of increased weight gain and obesity. Furthermore, if impaired glucose tolerance goes untreated, it can develop into diabetes. This further suggests that artificial sweeteners are not the best choice for diabetics.
Secondly, regular consumption of artificially-sweetened drinks has been associated with increasing BMI. Research has found that those who consume more than one sugar-free drink per day have a higher BMI than those who do not regularly consume sugar-free drinks.5
A BMI of between 25 and 29.9 is classed as being overweight and a BMI of between 30 and 39.9 is classed as being obese. A high BMI can thus lead to you being classed as overweight or obese. Both weight gain and obesity are linked to the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We, therefore, see another link back to the evidence that artificial sweeteners play a role in the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Finally, artificial sweeteners have also been associated with increased cravings for sugary food and drinks. The consumption of sweet food or drinks sets off a chain of events.
- When you consume something that is sweet, the taste receptors located in your tongue detect the sweet taste.
- Once sweetness is detected the receptors close.
- The taste cell is then activated and a signal is sent to the cerebral cortex.
- The parietal lobe is located within the cerebral cortex and it processes information about taste.
- Taste information then arrives at the primary gustatory cortex, a structure in the brain that is responsible for the perception of taste.
- Neurons within the primary gustatory cortex send signals to the ventral tegmental area.
- Neurons in the ventral tegmental area then release dopamine which causes you to feel pleasure.
- The brain then ensures that the process is repeated.
This reward system plays a key role in regulating energy intake, and a fault in this system may lead to weight gain and obesity.
Research has shown that regular consumption of artificial drinks can alter the reward process.6 The study found that regular sugar-free drink consumption has a negative effect on the caudate (a structure of the reward system). The caudate has been linked with influencing body weight control. Regular consumption of artificial sweeteners can, therefore, have a negative impact on health.
4. Artificial sweeteners are highly toxic to some people
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, contains the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that produces tyrosine, which is then used to produce signalling molecules.
Phenylalanine is considered to be safe and is present in several foods; however, those who suffer from phenylketonuria should limit consumption of foods that contain phenylalanine. Phenylketonuria is a rare disorder that prevents the breakdown of phenylalanine, leading to a build-up of phenylalanine in the blood and brain which could lead to brain damage.
Since aspartame contains phenylalanine, it is advised that those who suffer from phenylketonuria should limit aspartame intake.
What can you take away from this blog?
So, there is a lot of controversy surrounding artificial sweeteners. Further research is required to determine whether artificial sweeteners are beneficial or detrimental to health, so it might be a good idea to ease back on your consumption of them.
A little tip for you – Drink water! Water is without a doubt the best drink to consume for several reasons:
- Water has zero calories.
- It helps regulate body temperature.
- It's free!
- Drinking water helps to maintain the balance of body fluids.
- It helps keep the skin healthy.
- It helps the function of the kidneys.
- It helps flush out body wastes.
I know that some people find water a bit plain, so you can mix things up a bit and add some fruit to your water. Fruit-infused water adds some flavour without adding excess calories and sugar. I recommend adding a few slices of cucumber: it tastes lovely and refreshing!
What you said
We recently ran a poll to find out how often you consume sugar free drinks. We've crunched the numbers and here are the results.
Results: How often do you consume sugar free drinks?
Sugar free drinks are associated with several health risks so it's no surprise that the majority of you never drink them.