Artificial sweeteners seem to be a hot topic these days. There seems to be a big push against them claiming things like they promote cancer, make you hungrier, support weight gain and a whole list of negatives. You may recall in my article looking at whether or not artificial sweeteners cause a release in insulin I hinted about a future article looking deeper into how much we should be concerned about some of the other claimed negatives. I didn’t forget and the time has finally come. I’m here today to look at what the research really says.
Often artificial sweeteners are linked to obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. While it may be true that many people who drink a lot of beverages with artificial sweeteners may have conditions such as those mentioned, but isn’t it likely that the reason these people are drinking artificially sweetened drinks is because they have a weight problem and are trying to reduce their calories or sugar consumption? I don’t think it’s fair to say artificial sweeteners are what got them to those diagnoses. While there may be research that claims artificial sweeteners support weight gain, there is plenty of research that shows it helps with weight loss too. (1, 2) And really, if you are someone who has type 2 diabetes and you aren’t going to stop drinking sodas (let’s be honest, not everyone is willing to do what they should regardless of what it does to their body) what’s better, regular soda loaded with sugar or diet soda with none?
There are claims that people who regularly consume artificial sweeteners show altered activation patterns in the brain’s pleasure centers in response to sweet taste, meaning these products probably don’t satisfy their desire for sweets. Well if that’s the problem, there is a whole other problem to deal with. Drinking water instead of any other beverage like you should for optimal performance and health won’t satisfy your sweet tooth either. Other research claims artificial sweeteners may prevent people from associating sweetness with caloric intake and as a result they crave more sweets and tend to choose sweet food over more nutritious food. Again this isn’t likely a problem unless you are someone who has a problem with too frequently giving into their sweet temptations. For your typical health and fitness junkie this isn’t likely a problem. I wouldn’t say being unable to satisfy your desire for sweets is exactly unsafe for your body.
Now let’s talk about the links to cancer. This seems to be the main concern with regards to the safety of consuming artificial sweeteners. The concern of cancer and artificial sweeteners started in the 70’s when the FDA tried to ban saccharine due to animal studies that showed it caused cancer of the bladder, uterus, ovaries, skin and other organs. What they ended up doing was putting a warning label on anything with saccharin that stated “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” This warning is no longer used. In the late 90’s the Calorie Control Council stated the main health concern with saccharin was bladder cancer in male rats, not people. Further research showed that male rats have a particular predisposition to bladder cancer. For instance, vitamin C has been shown to cause tumors in mice. (3) I don’t think vitamin C is going to be banned anytime soon. According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer. (4)
Another common topic is artificial sweeteners will produce an insulin response, which I’ve already shown in my article I referenced above, is not true. In fact there is even research that suggests zero-calorie sweeteners produce the same response in the gut as water. (5) Even if it did create an insulin response, that certainly wouldn’t make it unsafe.
Based on everything I’ve seen there is no cause for concern in consuming under the recommended dose approved by the FDA of artificial sweeteners if you are a healthy individual without problems with controlling a nutritious diet. If you are someone likely to overindulge in sweets it may not be wise, but if you are worried about artificial sweeteners being harmful to your health, I don’t see evidence to support this. Of course you should consume plenty of water and shouldn’t go overboard with artificial sweeteners, but I don’t believe there is a need to completely eliminate them all from your diet.
What if you are someone who drinks a lot of soda though? Obviously drinking water is better but few can change habits overnight. If you go from drinking 5 sodas a day to nothing but water, it’s likely you’ll struggle to stick to it long-term. But if you switch to 3 diet sodas and slowly cut it out, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of sugar while you ween off of it. Just be sure to pay attention to your other choices too and see how your body reacts to the changes. Everyone is different so there is no one way that works best for everyone. Same goes for potential side effects. For most people it’s fine, but if you notice any side effects such as headaches or dizziness, eliminate artificial sweeteners and see if it makes a difference. An elimination diet is a great way to figure out what is bothering you.
Bottom line, there is a lot of research with peer-reviewed journal articles of both long and short-term studies showing artificial sweeteners approved for use by the FDA are safe in recommended doses in healthy individuals. (6, 7, 8, 9, 10) The only instance I can find where it’s unsafe is if you have a rare condition called phenylketonuria which is detected at birth through a mandatory screening program. So if you have it, you’ll already know it. These individuals are unable to metabolize phenylalanine which is present in aspartame, one of the most common artificial sweeteners used today. This is especially important for children under the age of 10 with this condition because consuming phenylalanine could even cause mental retardation in those individuals. Otherwise, feel free to knock back that favorite supplement of yours with artificial sweeteners without worry.
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