Are artificial sweeteners healthy? That’s the million dollar question (well, billion dollar actually if you talk in terms of market value!). But what are the artificial sweetener health risks and how conclusively has research been at evidencing their physiological effects? So, are artificial sweeteners bad for you? Read on to find out more!

sugar, brown sugar, artificial sweetener

The association with artificial sweeteners and weight loss is likely to be a major constituent in this growing industry. Many dieters see the opportunity to use sweeteners, such as stevia as a sugar substitute to easily offset calories from their diet without necessarily having to cut back on food consumption. That is, of course, if you don’t replace these lost calories by consuming extra food – a trend which has been observed in numerous studies. Sweeteners are most commonly prevalent in the following products:

  • Bakery Products
  • Dairy products
  • Confectionery
  • Beverages

The truth is that many health professionals and weight management programmes advocate the use of artificial sweeteners as a healthy substitute, when in fact the negative effects of artificial sweeteners is still up for debate.

If you’re curious about the effects of diets drinks in terms of weight gain or loss, please check out this article: Effects of diets drinks: weight gain or loss?

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners mimic the sweetness of sugar without the calories, and are consequently often associated with low calorie/diet foods.

Unfortunately the healthy artificial sweeteners list is relatively short. The most popular artificial sweeteners (also known as non-nutritive sweeteners) available include:

  • saccharin
  • sucralose acesulfame
  • aspartame
  • neotame

All of the above have received (Food and Drug Administration) FDA approval. There is also one natural sweetener which the FDA have approved and is becoming increasingly popularity – stevia.

Are artificial sweeteners safe?

Recent finds are alluding to the possibility of artificial sweeteners adversely impacting gut bacteria, metabolism and appetite. A meta-analysis conducted on 37 studies relating to the negative effects of artificial sweeteners on the heart and weight. Of the 37 studies, only 7 were considered randomised controlled tests. The 7 studied groups covered over 1,000 people during a 6-month period, while the whole study consisted of over 400,000 during a 10-year span.

The study demonstrated that non-nutritive sweeteners did not maintain a consistent effect on weight loss. A connection was observed between artificial sweetener consumption and elevated risk of weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and weight gain. The study concluded that caution should be exercised when consuming artificial sweeteners until the long-term effects have been proven.

In terms of the FDA approving non-nutritive sweeteners as safe, evidence substantiating this has more or less ruled out the risk of cancer. However, such studies are based on low consumption of diet drinks, whereas the average individual consumes approximately 700ml per day.

In a study examining individuals who consumed diet drinks on a daily basis, there was a 36% higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome and a 67% increase in developing type 2 diabetes. It seems to be somewhat of a paradox – presumably, some of these individuals have opted for the diet drinks to curtail their sugar intake, when in fact it has elevated their risk of developing diabetes!

So how do artificial sweeteners cause chronic diseases if they lack calories? The answer is still to be verified, however, some experts believe it could be associated with the metabolic processing of these materials in the body. Since they imitate the effects of sugar, it’s hypothesised that they are processed in a similar method to regular sugar. As such, they can lead to sugar spikes, fat gain and disrupt metabolic functioning.

Is stevia a healthy sugar substitute?

Stevia is natural sweetener which originates from the stevia plant. As such, many people consider stevia a healthy alternative to sugar. The plant has sweet leaves which are approximately 300 times sweeter than regular sugar. It is also associated with numerous health benefits including:

  • reduced calorie intake
  • reduced blood sugar levels
  • lower cholesterol levels

Stevia comes in a number of forms, including stevia liquid drops and powder stevia. In terms of purity, this can greatly vary amongst brands and products (the 2 links provided in the previous sentence for stevia are relatively pure). This is due to the degree of processing applied to the product before it reaches the shelf. A key watch out is in the name – if a product is sold as a stevia blend, then it’s likely to have undergone significant processing.

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For example, Truvia and Stevia in the Raw are two stevia blend products which are comprised of rebaudioside A (Reb A), which is a type of refined stevia extract; the remainder of the product is pumped with other sweeteners, e.g. maltodextrin. As a result, the quantity of stevia in these are relatively minimal.

Pure stevia, in comparison, lacks the additional sweeteners of the stevia blends, but still undergoes the same degree of processing. The least processed form of stevia available is the leaves from the stevia plant.

stevia plant, sweeteners, stevia artificial sweetener, sugar substitute
In terms of safety, steviol glycosides (refined stevia extracts), e.g. Reb A, have been approved by the FDA. Due to lack of research on stevia leaves and raw stevia health risks, the FDA have yet to deem stevia a healthy sugar substitute.

Fortunately, some guidance has been issued by the European Food Safety Authority and the FDA in terms of safe consumption levels; the acceptable daily intake of stevia glycosides:


1.8 mg per pound of body weight (4 mg per kg)

sugar free drink, sweetener, stevia

Summary

  • Evidence supporting adverse effects of artificial sweeteners is still rather limited
  • Almost all studies researched in this article necessitate further long-term analysis to verify the dangers of artificial sweeteners
  • Cautious consumption of artificial sweeteners should be observed until evidence deems their consumption safe
  • If opting for stevia products, aim for pure stevia as opposed to stevia blends
  • Opt for natural products where possible

The bottom line is that in the absence of evidence, people should aim to consume as much natural food and drinks as possible while being cognisant of their sugar intake.

What are your thoughts on artificial sweeteners? Will you grab the can of Coke Zero or regular Coke? How about a bottle of water and an apple? I personally often purchase pure stevia sweetener tablets for my tea and coffee.

Sources

Gardner, C. (2014). Non-nutritive sweeteners. Current Opinion in Lipidology, 25(1), pp.80-84.

Institute for Progressive Medicine. (2020). Artificial Sweeteners and Chronic Disease | Institute for Progressive Medicine. [online] Available at: https://www.iprogressivemed.com/artificial-sweeteners-and-chronic-disease/ [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

Link, R. (2018). Stevia Safety: Forms, Dosage, and Side Effects. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-stevia-safe#safety-and-dosage [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

Lohner, S., Toews, I. and Meerpohl, J. (2017). Health outcomes of non-nutritive sweeteners: analysis of the research landscape. Nutrition Journal, 16(1).

Matthews, M. (2015). Use Stevia as a Zero-Calorie Sweetener with Benefits – Legion Athletics. [online] Legion Athletics. Available at: https://legionathletics.com/use-stevia-as-a-low-calorie-sweetener/ [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

SafetyCompany.com. (2018). New Research Links Artificial Sweeteners to Chronic Disease. [online] Available at: https://www.safetycompany.com/safetyblog/new-research-links-artificial-sweeteners-to-chronic-disease/ [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

Strawbridge, H. (2012). Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost? – Harvard Health Blog. [online] Harvard Health Blog. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030 [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

Woods, L. (2019). Global Artificial Sweetener Market Report 2019: Market is Expected to Reach US$9.70 Billion in 2024 from US$7.22 Billion in 2018. [online] Prnewswire.com. Available at: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-artificial-sweetener-market-report-2019-market-is-expected-to-reach-us9-70-billion-in-2024-from-us7-22-billion-in-2018–300910602.html [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

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16 Comments

  • Mike · 07/03/2020 at 12:05 PM

    Damn, gotta moderate how I consume these sweeteners. Thanks for the info

      Sharon · 07/03/2020 at 12:14 PM

      Good idea, be warned though, they’re becoming ubiquitous throughout foods!

      Sharon

    Melissa · 07/03/2020 at 1:04 PM

    Wow, I really appreciate your article. I have heard so much about stevia but I have been apprehensive about trying it because I agree that we have to be cautious with artificial sweeteners. So thanks for the warning and I will stick to the pure.

      Sharon · 07/03/2020 at 2:18 PM

      Thank you so much!

      I hope the article offers some clarity on how you should approach consumption of artificial sweeteners!

      Sharon

    Jeff · 07/03/2020 at 6:02 PM

    Thank you for the education on artificial sweeteners, I must admit I avoid as much as possible any products with artificial ingredients. Even though the FDA approves these artificial sweeteners they also approve many of the medications now taken off the market because they have been found to be unsafe, so what is your opinion on using artificial ingredients in our products?

    Are you safe for us in your own opinion?

    Jeff

      Sharon · 08/03/2020 at 8:05 AM

      Hi Jeff,

      You are most welcome, I hope it was of interest and value to you!

      That is true, it’s evident from my research that information in the effects is sparse, and as such I try to limit use of artificial sweeteners and products.

      Hope this answers your question.
      Sharon

    Brian · 09/03/2020 at 6:17 PM

    I am one that stays away from artificial sweeteners. Thanks for the information on Stevia.

    Brian

      Sharon · 09/03/2020 at 7:43 PM

      Good to hear Brian, it can be a slippery slope for people who start using artificial sweeteners!

      Sharon

    Satz · 09/03/2020 at 6:33 PM

    Very informative post, I never came across Stevia…this was new learning for me. My sister has been using artificial sweeteners for past sometime. She often tells me that regular consumption of an artificial sweetener can increase your cravings for other sweet items – What is your view on this?

    Also, what about Molasses, maple syrup, honey, nectars, and juices can provide a natural sweetening effect for foods as well – Right ?

      Sharon · 09/03/2020 at 7:49 PM

      Hi there,

      Glad you learned something new from the article! There has been evidence that suggests consumption of artificial sweeteners intensifies sugar cravings, which is possibly why people who consume them tend to eat other sugary foods. That’s definitely something to watch out for!

      Yes they are other methods of sweetening without the artificial aspect to it. If you do feel uncertain about artificial sweeteners, it’s often better to err towards natural foods.

      Hope this answers your questions.
      Sharon

    JoAnne · 09/03/2020 at 7:55 PM

    Hi Sharon,

    Great post. I must admit, I just do not do anything artificial. For some reason, I have always been a lover of all things natural and steer clear of anything manmade such as the substitutes you have mentioned. I have tried stevia, but I feel for the small amount of sugar I consume in a day that I will also stick to ‘sugar’.

    Great read!

    Cheers
    Jo

      Sharon · 09/03/2020 at 8:10 PM

      Hi Jo,

      That’s a great way to live life, I’m sure your body will thank you for that yet! That’s totally fine too; after all, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of sugar in the diet!

      Sharon

    Thorhallur Maack · 09/03/2020 at 8:49 PM

    Hello Jo

    Thank you for this information. This will definitely make me think more about artificial sweeteners when I do my shopping.

    The information of different Stevia products are very helpful.

    This article is very well written and informative.

    Thank you again

    Thorhallur

      Sharon · 09/03/2020 at 8:54 PM

      Hi there,

      I’m glad it has been of benefit to you, people often don’t realise the effect of foods and prevalence of artificial sweeteners in food so that’s what I hope this article and page will deliver!

      Let me know if I can offer any assistance.
      Sharon

    Johan · 06/04/2020 at 8:14 AM

    Artificial sweeteners are an interesting debate that could rage from some people calling it pure-evil, to others saying it’s heaven-sent. I’ve heard heated arguments claiming it causes cancer and increases sugar cravings. To it had no calories so you can use it as much as you want.

    Though as you have mentioned, there really isn’t enough research on long term effects of the stuff. I guess the question is – How much research needs to be done before we have enough info.

      Sharon · 06/04/2020 at 5:55 PM

      Hi Johan,

      Definitely, I can see the for and against arguments in relation to artificial sweeteners. However, with limited evidence on the effects, it can leave an element of unknown to those who consume them. There would need to be multiple controlled long-term studies with a significant test group to put my mind at ease anyway!

      I think we’ll be waiting a while, so in the meantime I’ll be practicing the ‘everything in moderation’ approach.

      Best wishes,
      Sharon

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