If you have a sweet tooth, you might have tried using artificial sweeteners instead of natural sweeteners like sugar. Mainly because artificial sweeteners tend to give you all the sweetness without the calories. Artificial sweeteners in our foods are closely regulated in the EU for safety, but are they healthy
Natural vs Artificial – What’s The Difference
Natural sweeteners are produced by nature, without adding chemicals or using fancy lab equipment. Alternatively artificial sweeteners are synthetic and made in a lab using chemicals.
Here is a table showing some natural sweeteners and some artificial sweeteners. You’re probably familiar with some of these.
|Natural Sweeteners||Artificial Sweeteners|
Fructose (sugar from fruit)
Acesulfame K E950
Neo hesperidin dihydrochalcone E959
The artificial sweeteners in blue are also known as bulk sweeteners or polyols and they can have a laxative effect and can be found in things like sugar free confectionary.
What You Should Know About Artificial Sweeteners
The three main things you need to know about artificial sweeteners are.
- They are non-nutritive, meaning they offer no nutritional benefits like vitamins or minerals, unlike natural sweeteners which do.
- Artificial sweeteners are poorly absorbed by the body
- They can be 200 – 1300 times sweeter than sugar! You probably notice that diet fizzy drinks taste sweeter than non-diet fizzy drinks. This is the reason.
- Research has shown that artificial sweeteners may be safe, but they are not good for you health in large amounts. (Ali, More and Shaikh, 2021)
Take Aspartame for example. Aspartame can be found in many different food and drink products . Examples include sugar free confectionary, diet fizzy drinks, chewing gum, frozen desserts, dessert mixes and puddings, yoghurts (especially low fat or fat free yoghurts), pharmaceuticals such as sugar free vitamin supplements. In some people Aspartame can cause headaches, seizures, attention deficit disorders, heart palpitations, constipation and swelling (Neacsu and Madar, 2014).
Why Artificial Sweeteners Were Invented
The main reason they were invented was to help curb the obesity crisis by decreasing the number of calories people consumed from sugary foods. However, it may be doing the opposite (Pearlman, Obert and Casey, 2017; Myuz and Hout, 2019).
Effects Artificial Sweeteners Have On The Body
Several adverse effects on the body have been linked to artificial sweeteners. Especially on the brain, the gut microbes, and the pancreas.
Our love for sweet things comes from our need for energy. You know that amazing feeling you get when you are hungry, and you finally get food? Well, when you replace a food that provides energy with one that tastes like it does, but actually doesn’t, the reward pathway to your brain is only partially activated. This means you will end up overeating to feel satisfied.
Also like I mentioned before, artificial sweeteners taste 200-1300 times sweeter than actual sugar, so they are concentrated! This means you taste buds will become less and less sensitive to sweetness and you will have to keep adding more and more to get the same taste result. It’s the same with salt. If you tend to put loads of salt on your food, or just eat load of salty food in general, you probably find many foods bland unless they are full of salt. This is how artificial sweeteners mess up our brain chemistry (Myuz and Hout, 2019).
Watch my video on “How To Beat Those Sugar Cravings And Crave Healthy Food” to learn more about how our Gut microbes actually have control over they types of foods we crave.
Artificial sweeteners are processed differently by our Pancreas. This can lead to abnormal pancreas functioning and insulin levels, thus increasing your risk of developing various metabolic diseases like type 2 Diabetes. Although being overweight is a major risk factor for type 2 Diabetes and other metabolic diseases like heart disease, you can look slim on the outside and still develop these diseases (Myuz and Hout, 2019).
Artificial sweeteners are basically toxic to our gut microbes. So, when the bacteria in your gut are exposed to artificial sweeteners often are less able to digest natural sweeteners which provide us with energy and other nutrients. This is bad news because it changes the amount of nutrients we can get from our food (Myuz and Hout, 2019). This can lead to malnutrition even if you are eating enough food. Also, to clarify, when you hear the term malnutrition you may think of someone who is very thin. Malnutrition literally translates to ‘bad nutrition’. So, you could be overweight but not eating enough of a variety of nutritious foods, so you’d be malnourished.
In conclusion overconsuming artificial sweeteners will.
- Alter your body’s ability to process real sugar due to changes in your gut microbiome and insulin levels.
- This can lead to negative outcomes such as developing type 2 diabetes or not absorbing enough nutrients form your food and becoming mal nourished.
- Make you crave more sugar and when you don’t get the energy from the artificial sweeteners you’ll want to keep eating until you do get that energy, leading to weight gain.
They are all safe as they are natural, but are they healthy? In a nutshell they are, in small amounts just like most foods. Too much of them can cause things like weight gain due to excess calorie consumption and tooth decay, but including them as part of a healthy balanced, varied diet is the best way to go. They do what they say they’ll do and they don’t try to trick our bodies into thinking they are something they are not.
Do I recommend cutting out all artificial sweeteners? No. Why not? It just wouldn’t be easy as so many foods contain artificial sweeteners nowadays. What you can do is make the decision that when you are going to eat food because you are hungry, that food will contain the calories and nutrients you need to satisfy that hunger. If you decide to have a diet 7up with you sandwich your body is still getting its energy from the carbohydrates in the bread, and whatever fillings you might have. In general, it is healthier to eat foods that contain natural sweeteners, so non-diet drinks, adding real sugar to your tea or coffee, but you can try to cut back. You will find after a while your body will adapt and you won’t crave sweet food anymore.
I would recommend steering clear of sugar free confectionary though especially if you have any gut issues like IBS. They can have a very unpleasant effect that most people would say they aren’t worth it for.
Ali, A., More, T.A. and Shaikh, Z. (2021) ‘Artificial Sweeteners and their Health Implications: A Review’, Biosciences Biotechnology Research Asia, 18(2), pp. 227–237. doi:10.13005/bbra/2910.
Myuz, H. and Hout, Micheal.C. (2019) Trick or Treat? How Artificial Sweeteners Affect the Brain and Body, Frontiers for Young Minds. Available at: https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2019.00051 (Accessed: 22 February 2022).
Neacsu, N.A. and Madar, A. (2014) ‘ARTIFICLE SWEETENERS VERSUS NATURAL SWEETENERS’, Bulletin of the Transilvania University of Brasov. Economic Sciences, 7(1), p. 59. Available at: http://webbut2.unitbv.ro/BU2013/2014/Series_V/BULETIN%20V%20PDF/08_NEACSU-MADAR%20A.pdf.
Pearlman, M., Obert, J. and Casey, L. (2017) ‘The Association Between Artificial Sweeteners and Obesity’, Current Gastroenterology Reports, 19(12), p. 64. doi:10.1007/s11894-017-0602-9.