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Artificial Sweeteners: a healthy sugar substitute or a poison in different disguise?

Sugar is a most harmful substance, said to be more addictive than cocaine [1], with no nutritional goodness and a mass contributor to the obesity epidemic that has enveloped our planet.

Sugar is an inflammatory ‘food’; cancer cells suck up glucose from excess carbohydrate and sugar consumption, these aberrant cells survive, thrive, and multiply on this sticky substance. So sugar is bad for us, we know this, but as more and more policies come into force (the Mexican sugar tax being a notable countrywide example),[2] what is the future for us as consumers with a growing sugar free market?

Trials in many health settings are removing sugar added to drinks, as policy looks to address the widespread health issues associated with sugar consumption.

It seems inevitable that the next 20 years will see a huge change in our relationship with sugar. Already Pepsi Co has made a pledge to move forward with a commitment to sugar free and sugar reduced beverages[3,4]. In many ways this seems ground-breaking, and in terms of reducing our sugar consumption could be seen as a positive.

However, we have to be realistic and accept that companies such as Pepsi Co are committed to the bottom line, their profits, their shareholders and their investors. They want to make their products popular, and that means palatable. History has shown us that palatable means sweet, in one form or another.

And as this sugar free market develops, the drinks that replace the sugary beverages may be even more deleterious to health!

The “diet”, “lite”, “zero”, “maxed up”, sugar free alternatives sold by the major soft drinks companies are marketed as low calorie and a 'healthier option'. These diet drinks have an array of artificial sweeteners that have been passed as safe for human consumption. But how healthy is it to consume these sugar substitutes? What do we know, and not know, about artificial sweeteners and the consequential effect on our bodies?

Current nutritional advice places the reduction in calorie consumption as the most important factor for public health, citing the minimal calories found in diet soda compared to sugar sweetened beverages as a positive way to combat obesity. But does this advice miss the mark; should we be looking more closely at what effects artificial sweeteners have on our wellbeing, and pertinently and somewhat paradoxically, weight gain?

The Sweeteners

The American FDA approves six artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame potassium (Ace K), aspartame, neotame and sucralose advantame and two natural low-calorie sweeteners, stevia and Luo Han Guo (Monk Fruit). [5] These are all processed ‘foods’. What do we know about artificial sweeteners? There is still minimal research that has been carried out on their effects but the results seem to show the following themes:

They make healthy food taste bland

  • These artificial sweeteners are potent, which means large consumption of products like diet soda overstimulate the senses and make natural products taste bland, thereby reducing the palatability and interest in consuming healthy products such as vegetables and promoting a greater interest in artificially flavoured food instead, containing much less nutritional value.

They make us crave more sweetness

  • Artificial sweeteners dull our sense of sweetness, make us crave more sweet food, making consumption of sugar-laden foods more likely and consequentially increase the likelihood of weight gain
  • It has been suggested that whilst consuming artificial sweeteners we become unable to regulate glucose response effectively; the intense sweet flavour creates a desire for more sweetness than before and an inability to manage the response within the body to foods and drinks which are too sweet. Often this is when we over-consume as we feel that a low calorie diet drink allows us to eat or drink more
  • Sweet foods make us more charged, out of balance and less controlled in our energy release, and this affects all we do and in particular, our relationships. These effects make it more difficult to understand situations and relationships which can leave us feeling unsatisfied and thus more attracted to sweetness as a compensatory measure, leaving us in a constant state where we need sweet substances as a fix for emotional issues

They are highly addictive

  • It may not be so easy to give up the artificial sweeteners; one study showed that “Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward” in most rats[6]

There are safety concerns

  • Cancer studies up until now have only assessed limited consumption of artificial sweeteners, not the large amounts many are consuming, so it is currently unknown whether we are at risk
  • Daily consumption of artificial sweeteners is associated with a 36% increased risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increase risk for type 2 diabetes when compared to non-consumers[7]
  • The “San Antonio heart study” showed that weight gain and obesity were significantly greater in those drinking diet beverages compared with those who did not drink them[8]
  • Studies have showed increased risk to cardiovascular health and an increased risk of hypertension from daily consumption of two diet drinks per day[9]

Many schools, canteens and hospital across the world are banning sugar-laden soda and instead sell diet soda containing these artificial sweeteners. This is marketed as ‘a healthy sugar substitute’ – but is this a safe and wise option for our health? As things stand, the considered message is that there is not enough evidence that artificial sweeteners are a threat to health to consider banning them from sale.

But do we approach Evidence Based Scientific Practice from the wrong direction?

Shouldn’t the onus be on food additives to be proven safe far beyond reasonable doubt before entering the food chain, not the opposite way around where it is deemed safe unless the research conclusively proves otherwise? Is this the cigarette problem in another form? And is safety the only consideration given the evidence of weight gain in those consuming moderate amounts?

We should be looking at all food additives with a cautious approach: unless we know it is safe and in this case effective, we should keep our food products free of it. We should have a very high degree of scepticism for anything processed that we want to put into our food chain and our bodies.

Furthermore, not only is the research currently deemed inconclusive, there is a deeper issue at play. The University of Sydney, Australia, has recently uncovered an inherent bias in research on the safety and efficacy of sweeteners. Research funded by artificial sweetener companies is 17 times more likely to recommend them as a safe alternative than a neutral study would![10]

That is staggering though also not surprising in the context of the inherent bias found in so much evidence based practice and calls into question any research that reassures us over the safety of artificial sweeteners. What can we trust unless complete transparency and neutrality is assured?

Being realistic – taking responsibility!

We have to move forward with our eyes wide open and our senses heightened. We can’t rely on the food industry to govern our safety; self-responsibility in our food and drink choices is our pathway to good health. We must be realistic and question what is on offer. The current model of food industry regulation operates within a corrupted system, where outcomes are often skewed by bias from self-interest.

The wider question is, of course, why we are looking to replace one sweetened product with another? Addressing the root cause of our desire for sweetness is what is needed to change our relationship with sugar. Why do we have such an insistent desire for a sweet fix? Currently no health interventions address these more pertinent questions.

This is where we must take our own responsible approach. There are enough question marks over diet sodas to make us question their safety, and if no ban on such products exists, then it is still entirely within our own means to put our own ban in place. We can say no to any food item we deem may risk our health; discern with our own wisdom what foods support us best.

In fact it may be the most responsible way to care for our own wellbeing. We are after all, our greatest scientific experiment. It may not pass an ethics test of sound evidence but it will pass your own test of what it means to be healthy and reduce your risk of ill health, which in turn could result in a vital life of optimal health and wellbeing.

What could be sweeter than that?


  • [1]

    Lenoir M, Serre F, et al (2007) Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2(8): e698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0000698

  • [2]

    Colchero, Popkin et all (2016) Beverage purchases from stores in Mexico under the excise tax on sugar sweetened beverages: observational study. http://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.h6704

  • [3]

    http://www.pepsico.com/Purpose/Performance-with-Purpose/Our-Goals

  • [4]

    http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/10/17/498274851/pepsico-pledges-to-cut-sugar-as-big-oda-comes-under-scrutiny

  • [5]

    https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm397716.htm

  • [6]

    Lenoir, Serre (2007) Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17668074

  • [7]

    Nettleton, Luttesey et al (2009), Diet Soda Intake and Risk of Incident Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) Diabetes Care 2009 Apr; 32(4): 688-694. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/32/4/688

  • [8]

    Fowler, Williams (2008) Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long-term Weight Gain, DOI: 10.1038/oby.2008.284 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1038/oby.2008.284/abstract

  • [9]

    http://www.medicaldaily.com/4-dangerous-effects-artificial-sweeteners-your-health-247543 10. http://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2016/09/16/artificial-sweeteners-hit-sour-note-with-sketchy-science.htm

Filed under

NutritionSugar alternativesHealthy dietSugar freeFood industryEvidence-based

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    By Stephen Gammack, Health & Fitness Teacher

    Stephen has worked in health promotion for his career of 15 years across both the public and private sectors. He works with clients of all ages and levels to make fitness about wellness.

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