The truth about artificial sweeteners

Are they a good option or should they be avoided?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
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27 September 2017

What exactly are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are low-calorie, synthetic alternatives to sugar. They first emerged in the early 20th century (many of them being discovered by accident!) and saccharin was one of the first varieties that emerged. These ingredients can be knocked up quickly in a lab, some are up to 500 times sweeter than sugar and they contain little to no calories, so what’s not to like – right? 

During tougher times, such as during the war when sugar rations were in full swing, artificial sweeteners came to the rescue, or so we thought; they made their way into drinks and canned goods and made the perfect sugar substitute. Then, by the time sugar became available again they’d already made their mark, people were used to them, and it looked like they were here to stay.

A brief history of the popularity of artificial sweeteners

As time went on, like everything, new varieties cropped up and over time they became pretty popular, – they were seen as the perfect low-calorie alternative to sugar after all. ‘Diet juices’ were a huge hit, and this was one area in particular where artificial sweeteners really took off. Cyclamate and Aspartame were soon on the market and appearing in a whole magnitude of products instead of sugar. They were the perfect solution for people trying to watch their weight of course...

Throughout their journey, with cyclamate for example, health concerns began to crop up, (the stuff wasn’t going down too well in animal studies you see, and rats were in some cases becoming quite ill with over-consumption). But remarkably, new varieties just cropped up, replaced some of the previous ones that we weren’t too sure of and this wasn’t a huge cause for concern.

 By the 1960s Aspartame was the next big thing; after some debate about whether it was safe or not, by the early 1980s it was all the rage and appeared in a number of products. Sucralose appeared around a similar time, around the 1970s, and it was the favourite to be used in home baking.

With the infamous low-fat push that emerged from the 1970s onwards, low-calorie options were becoming ever-more popular, plus, sweet, low-calorie options; these were the real winner of course. 

Nowadays, with the growing obesity and diabetic markets the ‘need’ for ‘low-calorie’ sweet alternatives are more current than ever...

What’s the truth when it comes to sweeteners?

So, is it coincidence that booming obesity and diabetes rates have went hand in hand with the increasing use of artificial sweeteners? Well, contrary to common belief, perhaps not, and new research has shed some light on this.

First though, let’s just take a step back and consider something that we really shouldn’t ignore – the rage against fats. Since the 1970s, unfortunately, fat has been wrongly demonised in many cases. For many years, this resulted in a general reduction in the intake in fat and an increase in carbohydrates and sweeter options instead. 

However, nowadays we are hopefully, albeit very slowly, beginning to change public opinion when it comes to fats, but there has been no denying that sweet has taken over and we are now having to deal with the aftermath of this. Fats have very much taken a back seat over the years and whether natural or artificial, sugar and sweeteners and refined carbohydrates, have prevailed; at the cost of our health of course. Preferably we should be avoiding most of these options as much as possible, but for now, let go back to the sweeteners specifically.

Let’s think about things logically. Our body is clever in that it becomes conditioned to certain responses. That’s why you risk having a little dribble at the sight or smell of your dinner, (or even when you think about it for that matter) – and we call this classical conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs were one of the first examples if this. Anyway, then when you go on to taste that first bite of your meal, your stomach really kicks into gear and starts pumping out digestive juices in eager anticipation. These are all perfectly natural responses, but what happens when we confuse things and introduce synthetic chemicals into the equation instead?

Unfortunately, your taste buds can be easily fooled; they haven’t been designed to tell the different between different types of sweetness you see. You taste sweet, and your body prepares. This means insulin is released. In the presence of sugar, insulin deals with that sugar. It packs it all nicely into your tissues so you have a source of energy for when you need it; job done. But what happens in the presence of a sweetener? Remember the beauty of these (a diabetic will tell you) is that they aren’t metabolised the way sugar is, and therefore they don’t cause that same spike in blood sugar. But too late, insulin is already out in patrol and ready for action. This means that any trace of sugar that’s left in your blood is bombarded by all this insulin, packed away and your blood sugar plummets. As a result, you’re at a great risk feeling hungry and dissatisfied and the bottom line is (which has been backed by research); ‘diet’ products, (including juices which have been packed with sweeteners), can actually increase our appetite1.

OK, so it turns out that diet juices may not be so diet-friendly, that’s one disadvantage, but what else do we need to consider when it comes to sweeteners?

So, we’ve mentioned some of the potential health concerns that have emerged over the years which really shouldn’t be ignored, then research has confirmed that they could be linked to weight gain (as above), but actually, there’s something else. Some brand new research has also suggested that artificial sweeteners could potentially increase the risk of type II diabetes in as little as two weeks2

So, we already had some idea that there were some significant effects on our blood sugar (as I explained above in terms of effects on our appetite) but to have such profound effects on more serious parameters, and within that time frame, really is quite terrifying.

Then to add to all of this, there are also supposed detrimental effects on the balance of bacteria in our gut too, which makes sense since they aren’t absorbed. But we know only too well the bacteria in our guts are linked to everything from our weight to our mood, so best not to mess with it. The final blow is there have also been some links with heart disease too2 – whatever else?! 

In conclusion...

Although it was concluded from this new study2 that we may need further research to support these ideas, there is definitely reason to believe that the health effects of these sweeteners aren’t looking particularly positive and we are constantly shedding more light on this as time goes on. 

The bottom line is that, artificial sweeteners aren’t natural, so it isn’t surprising our body doesn’t know quite what to make of them and potential issues have arisen. Eat fresh and avoid added chemicals as much as possible and your body will thank you for it!


1. Yang, Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med, 2010, 83(2), (101-108)

2. Azad MB, Abou-Setta AM & Chauhan BF et al. Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies, CMAJ, 2017, 189(28), doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390

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