Artificial sweeteners have been swathed in controversy ever since a chemist accidentally created saccharin in 1879. A lot of the hullabaloo has been focused on links between the sweet stuff and cancer, studies in the 1970s suggesting it causes tumors in lab rats.
Those claims were later debunked, and saccharin (Sweet ’N Low) continues to have the blessing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with four other artificial sweeteners: aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame (Sweet One), and neotame (Newtame).
Occasional studies persist in linking some of these sweeteners with cancer, but many others and the general consensus of the scientific community insist there is no connection between the sweeteners and any form of cancer when consumed in normal amounts.
Still, some experts note that fake sweeteners have been linked to other obesity, diabetes, and other problems and say it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“While chemicals added to our diet are not invariably harmful, they do invariably take us outside the bounds of natural foods to which we are natively adapted,” notes Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “That raises the possibility of harm and invites precaution.”
Here’s the lowdown on four areas in which artificial sweeteners may affect you:
Weight gain: In an ironic twist of physiological fate, an oft-cited 2005 review by researchers at the University of Texas concluded that people who drank diet sodas “consistently” gained weight. And a comprehensive 2010 review published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine noted, “Several large scale prospective cohort studies found positive correlation between artificial sweetener use and weight gain.”
But Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist at the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that such correlations “do not prove that artificial sweeteners cause weight gain. People who are overweight or obese may simply be consuming diet soda in an attempt to lose weight.” She adds that that a well-executed 18-month randomized, controlled study of 641 kids in 2012 found that diet soda alone did not promote weight gain.
Sugar cravings: Research suggests that the sugar substitutes are so sweet – aspartame is 7,000 times sweeter than cane sugar – they inure people to sweetness. That dulls the sweet taste of heathy whole foods, like fruit, and creates a craving for even sweeter stuff, some scientists hypothesize.
Lefferts cites a 2012 study on 200 overweight or obese people who exchanged regular soda for diet versions for six months and found they actually cut back on desserts compared with a control group. “According to this study, it appears that artificially sweetened drinks don’t increase appetite for sweets,” she concludes.
Microbiome disruption: A landmark study found that artificial sweeteners spiked blood glucose in rodents by up to 400 percent, and researchers blamed it on the chemicals’ effect on bacteria in the gut microbiome. And a 2014 study on humans concluded that artificial sweeteners’ impact on the microbiome is so significant it may have contributed to the obesity and diabetes epidemics in our country.
But Lefferts notes that the latter study only tested with saccharine and was “too small and too short to draw firm conclusions about effects over the long term. But the results are provocative and deserve further study.”
Metabolic changes: Although a study that tracked more than 40,000 men found no link between diet beverages and diabetes, Lefferts explains that sugar substitutes can interact with sweet-taste receptors not only in the mouth but also in the gastrointestinal tract and pancreas, causing gut hormones to be secreted and other metabolic changes. “That could affect the regulation of body weight,” she says.
“The bottom line is that too much sugar is worse than too much artificial sweeteners,” adds Lefferts. “If you’re drinking a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages, switching to diet would be a step in the right direction. Even better would be plain water or water with a slice of lemon or lime or a sprig of mint, a little juice mixed into seltzer, or tea or coffee.”
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