The Health Consequences of Artificial Sweeteners

Original Article November 2017, Updated November 2022

Author: Myra Oney, Integrative Nutrition Coach

The popularity of artificial sweeteners has had many unintended health consequences, including weight gain. 

As you undoubtably know sugar poses a myriad of dangers to your health. Recognizing this has most likely led you to look for different ways to sweeten your food. Artificial and natural sweetener alternatives fill the grocery shelves, but which are the best and the safest to use?

For decades artificial sweeteners have been touted as a healthier alternative to sugar and a boon for people with diabetes and other blood sugar issues. Early clinical studies (most before 1978 and all done on rats) found that there was no evidence that artificial sweeteners are harmful to human health. These are the studies that led the FDA to certify artificial sweeteners as being GRAS – Generally Recognized as Safe. However, recent long-term studies on the effects of using artificial sweeteners in humans have begun to reveal a different story.

Current studies have found conclusively that consumption of artificial sweeteners and the artificially sweetened food is positively linked to weight gain and increased waist circumference. Why? A sweet taste induces an insulin response, which normally causes dietary sugar to be metabolized as glucose, the body’s main source of energy. Because blood sugar does not increase with artificial sweeteners, the insulin release causes a hypoglycemic reaction (low blood sugar) leading to increased hunger.

Simply put, artificial sweeteners are not satisfying. They create an addiction to sweets by training the taste buds to “need” sweeter foods, and by sending a signal to the body that it is still hungry. Since the zero calories and lack of fiber or nutritional value in artificial sweeteners do not satisfy hunger, someone consuming one serving of an artificially sweetened food such as a no-sugar cookie would be likely to eat three or four, and then follow it up with a calorie dense food to satiate their hunger. Additionally, artificial sweeteners are found exclusively in processed foods, which tend to be high in refined carbohydrates, chemical additives, and other non-nutritive substances, thereby putting an extra burden on the body’s detoxification pathways. The extra fat around the belly (where the body stores fat it can’t process) is a good indication of the body having a hard time detoxifying.

So, what are your best natural options to satisfy your sweet tooth?

Natural Sweeteners:

Any sweeteners should be used sparingly. Those listed below have the advantage of being all-natural, minimally processed real foods (with the exception of erythritol), some with a nutritional value.

  1. Raw Honey (1 tablespoon – 64 calories) Local, organic, raw has the highest nutritional value.
  2. Stevia and Monkfruit (0 calories) Neither of these natural sweeteners causes a spike in insulin or glucose but can still lead to cravings due to their sweetness. Most Monkfruit preparations and some stevia also contain the sugar alcohol erythritol to give it a sugar-like texture and more sweetness. Used in small amounts, most people have no problem with it. Stevia can have a bitter aftertaste. Stevia and Monkfruit are both okay for diabetes, pre-diabetes, and keto diets.
  3. Dates (1 Medjool Date – 66 calories) Great to puree for making no-bake treats such as nut and dried fruit bars, or for a standalone sweet treat. High in fiber puts dates low on the glycemic index, and they are high in antioxidants.
  4. Coconut Sugar (1 tablespoon – 45 calories) An alternative to real sugar, but should be used sparingly. It contains inuline, a fiber which keeps it low on the glycemic index. It contains a fair amount of fructose.
  5. Maple Syrup (1 tablespoon – 52 calories) Real maple syrup – not the artificially flavored corn syrup. Minimally processed, contains high amounts of immune supporting minerals such as zinc and manganese.
  6. Blackstrap Molasses (1 tablespoon – 47 calories) High in minerals and antioxidants with a low glycemic index. Good for sweetening meats and vegetables, as well as beverages.
  7. Balsamic Glaze (1 tablespoon – 20-40 calories depending on thickness) Great for glazing meats and cooked vegetables.
  8. Banana puree and apple sauce (1 cup – 200 calories) Can be used as a sweetener for baked goods, puddings, and smoothies.
  9. Sweet spices: Allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, and garam masala can all be used to sweeten stews, sauces and baked goods. Cinnamon has the added benefit of stabilizing blood sugar.

As you can see, there are many alternatives to consider, but they may require you to be willing to try something new and different (molasses in your coffee – not bad!) The best natural sweeteners are nutritive, meaning that they have caloric and nutritional content. They are not highly processed and contain mostly the whole food instead of a derivative.

The ultimate goal of living a healthy, sugar-free life is to re-train your taste buds to be happy with less of the overpowering sweetness found in processed foods and added sweeteners (real or artificial) and be satisfied with the natural sweetness found in fruits, vegetables, and spices. By starting a little at a time to replace (or remove) sugar or artificial sweeteners in your diet, you can achieve a sweet, healthy life.

More on Artificial Sweeteners

  1. Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet NatraTaste Blue)
  • Aspartame is a synthetic chemical composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, with a methyl ester.
  • Reported symptoms of symptoms of fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis
  • Dizziness, and headaches
  • Neurological symptoms such as impaired memory and learning processes

Researchers are finding that drinking two diet sodas a day sweetened with aspartame can lead to a 500 percent increase in waist size.

  1. Saccharine, (Sweet & Low)
  • A derivative of coal tar, commonly manufactured by combining anthranilic acid (used among other things as a corrosive agent for metal) with nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and ammonia
  • Possible link to bladder and uterine cancers (rat studies)

Although the link between saccharin and cancer in humans has been inconclusive, Saccharine nevertheless has the same negative effects on the metabolism as other zero-calorie sweeteners.

  1. Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Derived from a sugar molecule, which undergoes a chemical process that causes it to not be metabolized by the body
  • Causes a 50% reduction in “good bacteria” in the gut microbiome which after 12 weeks has still not recovered
  • When heated during cooking, it degrades and releases harmful chloropropanols, a toxin which may lead to various cancers as well as infertility in men

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