Are artificial sweeteners harmful? If you have been wondering about this, then article should clear up your doubts.
The recent years have seen a surge in the ‘diet drinks and food’ industry. While some of us have now become aware that eating large amounts of sugar every day can be bad for health, it seems that many of us feel that sweeteners are the way forward.
But the question to ask is this – ‘are artificial sweeteners a healthy alternative to sugar?’ Let’s look at the available scientific evidence. [toc]
Types Of Artificial Sweeteners
The sugars that we currently consume in our regular diet are of different kinds. Cane sugar, honey, jaggery, fructose, sucrose and molasses are the common ones used in our diet.
Fruit juices have natural sugars, though many of them available have ‘added sugars’.
Artificial sweeteners are also of different kinds. The commonly used ones include aspartame, acesulfame K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose and advantame. These are used in baking, cooking, low fat-low sugar foods and in diet soft drinks.
If you wish to read more about these sweeteners, click here.
Some sweeteners that are being manufactured in India and abroad have the term ‘natural’ attached to them. While they may be derived from natural sources, the sweeteners are in fact processed. This would make the word ‘natural’ a misnomer. In other words, all sweeteners are synthetic.
Benefits Of Artificial Sweeteners
If you are an individual who suffers from diabetes, then sweeteners may be the way forward if you have a sweet tooth or cannot stand to have a bland cup of coffee.
Below are some of the benefits of having artificial sweeteners instead of plain ol’ sugar.
1. Weight management
Using sweeteners may help maintain a healthy body weight, as long as a healthy diet and exercise routine is followed. They have zero calories, which makes them an attractive alternative to sugar.
However, as always, there is controversy around their real benefit in weight control, as I have discussed later.
2. Management of diabetes
A diagnosis of diabetes can be a real jolt, especially if you are one who constantly indulges in sweets. Using artificial sweeteners can help as they do not raise blood sugar levels.
It would therefore be possible to enjoy cakes and biscuits if they are made ‘sugar free’ with these sweeteners.
3. No cavities!
Artificial sweeteners do not cause tooth decay. Bet that put a smile on your face!
Harmful Effects Of Artificial Sweeteners
There exists a great deal of controversy regarding the real benefits of artificial sweeteners.
Scientific studies have linked these products to the development of obesity, metabolic syndrome and cancer, though these studies are still not concrete.
Despite the available evidence, it appears that many of these sweeteners are approved for use by the US FDA (they are labelled ‘generally regarded as safe’ or ‘GRAS’).
In a paper published in the reputed journal Nature, the use of artificial sweeteners was associated with an increase in the development of glucose intolerance, which is a precursor to the development of diabetes (Suez, 2014).
A detailed study that looked at the available evidence linking artificial sweeteners to health problems described the following (Swithers, 2013)
- Increased risk of obesity
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk of development of metabolic syndrome
- Higher risk of heart disease
- Higher risk of high blood pressure
Certain animal studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can be addictive. Interestingly, in these studies, the animals (rats) preferred oral saccharin to intravenous cocaine (Lenoir, 2007).
These days, alternative to sweeteners called ‘sugar alcohols’ have emerged on the market (by the way, they do not contain alcohol!).
These are just like sugar, but have half the calories with almost the same taste.
Stevia is considered to be one of these groups, though the manufacturing process involved makes it difficult to appropriately categorise it as one of them.
Some of the commonly used sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. You may have noticed these names on the back of your favourite chewing gum box.
Patients with diabetes must avoid sugar alcohols as they can raise the blood sugar slightly. They can also cause bloating and abdominal discomfort in some, along with diarrhoea due to their laxative effect.
Making A Change
The current attitude that exists is that it is okay to eat other high calorie food as long as you continue to use sweeteners. For example, going to your local fast food joint, ordering a burger with fries and a diet soft drink to wash it down. There is really no point to that. The best policy is to keep the intake of sugar rich and sugar free foods to a minimum. When possible, eat nutritive sugars that are present in fruits and other natural products.
Suez, Jotham, et al. “Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota.” Nature 514.7521 (2014): 181-186.
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