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!
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
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:
- sucralose acesulfame
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.
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)
- 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.
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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].