Artificial sweeteners have been at our coffee bars and in our kitchens for over a century. Most of us have eaten artificial sweeteners at some point, whether we knew it at the time or not. They are ubiquitous in our modern, industrialized food system.
Artificial sweeteners are popular for one reason. They provide the same sweet taste to food and drink as sugar but without all the calories. Countries fighting an obesity epidemic champion artificial sweeteners as an easy way to cut caloric intake.
Yet despite their relatively long existence, there is still a debate over the dangers of artificial sweeteners. In fact, some public health experts think it might be better just to stick with moderate amounts of sugar.
Many of us have been trained to think that the no-calorie option is always better. However, research shows that artificial sweeteners have impacts on the human body and the environment.
The next time you find yourself reaching for those pink or blue packets, you may want to consider the disadvantages.
Sugar and the Human Body
The human body needs sugar. It is the fuel source for your cells.
For those of us that work out, sugar can be especially important in our post-workout recovery routine. During a workout, your body uses a lot of energy. So your muscles become depleted of the sugar they need for growth and repair.
Not all sugar is the same, however. Sugar naturally occurs in the fruits and grains that we eat—anything that contains carbohydrates. Our bodies evolved to break down most carbohydrates slowly. That allows for a gradual release of the necessary energy to our cells.
However, naturally occurring carbohydrates are different to the refined sugar we buy in bags at the store. Refined or processed sugars are simple carbohydrates, and so they break down more quickly. This can increase blood pressure, and it may affect your heart and liver if you add processed sugar to your diet consistently over time. It can also build up fat and eventually cause weight gain and obesity.
It is easy to count the number of sweetener packets added to our coffee. But we don’t always know when we are eating refined sugars. Prepared foods often hide things like high fructose corn syrup.
If it’s not necessary, and can even be damaging, then why did we start making food and drinks sweet in the first place?
Sweeteners: A Very Brief History
Research has shown that prehistoric man didn’t eat a lot of carbohydrates and, thus, not a lot of sugar. We do know that refined sugars eventually spread from Asia through the Middle East and into Europe in the 13th century.
At this point, sugar was a luxury spice. Because it had to be imported, it was extremely expensive and not always available on the market. Most people could not afford to buy it.
However, in the 17th century, several European countries realized that sugar grew successfully in the Americas. Sugar plantations were a mainstay in colonial America, and this was a driver of the slave trade. The corresponding boom in global supply meant more people could afford the addictive joy of sugar.
Sugar steadily entered modern diets all over the world. There have been times where sugar was unavailable, especially during periods of war. But sweet foods continue to be a staple in most countries.
We see sweeteners everywhere: candy, soda, canned goods, condiments, preserved goods, even deli meats. We eat sugar even when we don’t realize it.
Even in the early days, when sugar was just becoming more accessible, public health experts began to suspect it could lead to health problems. As seen in the rapid rise of obesity and diabetes, those suspicions were justified.
Enter Artificial Sweeteners
Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener to be discovered. Two scientists at Johns Hopkins University accidentally found it in 1879. Since that time, several kinds of artificial sweeteners have been produced and distributed to consumers around the world.
Artificial sweeteners are often marketed as a way to sweeten food without the disadvantages that come with sugar. These products have few to no extra calories, and they can also help consumers avoid dental decay.
For countries that continue to struggle with obesity and high rates of diabetes, artificial sweeteners seemed like a blessing. Studies over time, however, have raised questions over whether or not there are associated dangers.
Artificial sweeteners have faced regulatory battles in countries across the world. Additionally, a lot of time and resources have been spent trying to understand if they are harmful or not. Yet given the widespread availability of “diet” and “sugar-free” products, they have also perhaps never been more popular.
Artificial Sweeteners: What’s Allowed and What’s Not
Artificial sweeteners is a category that has grown considerably since the day saccharin was first discovered. As the number of artificial sweeteners on the market grew, they also diversified. Today, both the United States and the European Union divide sweeteners into two subcategories when regulating their presence in food and drink.
High-intensity sweeteners, AKA intense sweeteners, can be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar but add few if any calories to your meal. These sweeteners are the most common artificial sweeteners, and there are several different kinds that have been approved.
Saccharin is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. You are probably familiar with the blue and pink packets you see at your local coffee shop. Scientists have widely tested it on rats and humans. In 2000, it was removed from the list of potential carcinogens.
The Federal Drug Administration in the United States approved the use of aspartame in 1981. Like saccharin, both the United States and the European Union approved it.
Some consumers with the rare disease phenylketonuria are not able to metabolize one of its components: phenylalanine. For that reason, products containing aspartame must mention its presence on the label.
Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) was first approved in the European Union in 1984 and by the FDA in 1988. Because it stays sweet under heat, it is often used in pastries and other baked goods. It leaves a specific aftertaste, however, so is often used in conjunction with other sweeteners.
Sucralose is nearly 600 times sweeter than sugar, so it can be used in much smaller amounts. It is a general purpose sweetener, meaning it is approved for use in a wide variety of food and drink.
Our bodies do not metabolize this compound. They absorb and quickly excrete it—a problem with artificial sweeteners that we will discuss in more detail later on.
Neotame was approved more recently, in 2002, in the United States. The EU did not approve it until 2011.
Neotame can be 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar. Because it is so sweet, food manufacturers can use it to drastically lower the costs of production.
Advantame is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. The FDA approved it in 2014. It is often used in baked goods because it is heat stable.
Sugar alcohols are the second subcategory of artificial sweeteners regulated in food and drink. These compounds are carbohydrates that contain chemical characteristics of both sugars and alcohols—but are not like the alcohol you find at the bar.
Sugar alcohols are actually less sweet than sugar but have other advantages. They don’t react with the plaque in your mouth, which means they won’t cause cavities.
They also tend to have fewer carbohydrates in them. So they will have less of an effect on your blood glucose levels. This is especially good for diabetics. However, consumers also need to be careful, as sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect if eaten in large amounts.
Some of the sugar alcohols approved for use include sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol, and maltitol. These compounds are also approved in the European Union but are known as bulk sweeteners.
What’s Not Allowed?
It is almost certain that labs across the world continue to search for the next, best sweetener. In most cases, countries have approved or denied the same sweeteners. However, there are a few that are considered acceptable in certain forms and places while not approved in others.
Steviol glycosides originate from the stevia plant. The European Union approved its use in food in 2011. In the United States, steviol glycosides are generally recognized as safe (GRAS)—which means they do not require FDA approval.
There are other products of the stevia plant, like stevia extracts or stevia leaf, that you may find on the market. However, the United States does not regard them as safe and has not approved them for use.
The cyclamate category includes three different compounds: cyclamic acid, sodium cyclamate, and calcium cyclamate. They have the lowest sweetening power of the high-intensity sweeteners. Most humans do not absorb these compounds and so excrete them in urine in the same form.
In 1969, cyclamates were prohibited in many countries after a study found they produced bladder tumors in rats. Subsequent studies contradicted those results. The European Union now approves cyclamates for use, but the United States continues to prohibit them.
Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners: The Human Body
Naturally, we want anything found in food or drink to be safe. However, findings on the impact on human health can be mixed. Research shows that there are several dangers when it comes to artificial sweeteners.
Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer
The original health concern when it came to the dangers of artificial sweeteners was cancer. In the 1970s, one study found that saccharin could be linked to cancer in rats. Later, scientists found that this link was due to the specifics of their anatomy and it is safe for human consumption.
Aspartame was suspected to cause brain cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma at one point. The FDA in the United States found flaws in the study and did not consider aspartame to be unsafe. The National Cancer Institute has also reviewed the findings and does not consider aspartame to be linked to cancer in humans.
The European Union and other countries have approved the use of cyclamates. While earlier studies found a link between cyclamates and cancer, those studies have since been disproved. Petitions have been filed to reapprove cyclamates in the US. The FDA’s concerns about the compound are not cancer related, however.
Artificial Sweeteners and Obesity
The science on the link between weight gain and artificial sweeteners is not as clear. Food and drink containing artificial sweeteners have been marketed and promoted as a way to cut calories. However, it may not be that black and white.
For one thing, these products may disproportionately attract overweight consumers. This can cause the line between causation and reverse causation to become blurred. Do these drinks have more overweight people associated with them because they cause weight gain? Or are overweight people associated with them because they are trying to lose weight?
Other studies find that there is, perhaps, a link between the two. It is possible that these compounds can alter the way your body decides if it is hungry or not. If your body tastes something sweet, it can be tricked into believing it needs more food. This can cause you to eat more calories elsewhere, perhaps more calories than you would have consumed from eating sugar.
Artificial Sweeteners and the Brain
In 2017, a study was released on the effect of artificial sweeteners on the brain. The study linked artificial sweeteners to higher instances of stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
The study followed 2,888 participants for ten years. Study participants completed a survey on their average intake of artificially sweetened beverages. Afterward, scientists followed them to record incidents of stroke, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease.
They found that participants who tended to drink more artificially sweetened beverages had higher rates of these diseases than participants who drank sugar-sweetened ones. Of course, more study needs to be done to corroborate these results.
It is also easy to confuse causation with correlation. However, it is still something that should be monitored.
Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Control
Some people drink diet sodas or eat sugar-free candy as a way to maintain their weight rather than lose it. Some studies have shown that this is a valid approach, while other results have been mixed.
It involves a certain psychology, and you can think of your caloric intake as a bank account. If you know that you are “saving” calories in one area of your diet, it can be tempting to “spend” them in another area. For example, one diet soda could mean you saved enough calories to have a piece of cake.
If you are starting at a healthy weight balance, this method could work. However, if you consistently save in areas that, relatively, aren’t worth that many calories and spend in areas that have more, your balance is going to be off. In that case, you might see weight gain.
For more information on our body’s responses to sweet foods, check out this informational video from the Mayo Clinic in the United States.
Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners: The Environment
Much of the debate over artificial sweeteners has centered on their impacts on health. However, artificial sweeteners can also pose a danger to our environment and the landscape around us.
Drinking Water Quality
Many of the world’s freshwater resources are also drinking water sources for the human populations around them. Rivers and lakes, in particular, often serve as raw water sources for public water systems. They can also serve as discharge locations for wastewater treatment plants.
The body does not completely metabolize many of the artificial sweeteners approved on the market. In fact, some of them leave your body exactly the same as when they entered it.
Additionally, many of these compounds are very difficult to treat at wastewater treatment plants. As a result, many artificial sweeteners are discharged to freshwater resources intact. Downstream, they can enter the raw water intakes for water treatment plants. Once in a water treatment plant, they are again difficult to treat.
Artificial sweeteners have been found in drinking water across the United States, Europe, and China. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged the “emerging contaminant” status of several artificial sweeteners.
Emerging contaminants are compounds that may be present in drinking water but are not currently regulated. Many of them have not been studied well enough to determine what levels are safe.
As a result, many of these compounds end up recycled through our water sources. Humans can be exposed to artificial sweeteners unknowingly while drinking tap water. Until effective treatment technologies can be found, artificial sweeteners will also continue to impact the environment around our cities and towns.
Although they were discovered in a lab, artificial sweeteners are mass produced today. This means that they are made, packaged, and priced in large industrial plants, like many other modern consumer goods.
These plants often have large carbon footprints due to the massive amounts of energy they use. If not properly controlled, they can also contribute to poor air quality in the regions where they operate. There may also be byproducts of their production, which need to be disposed of properly.
Artificial Sweeteners: How Can I Avoid Them?
The modern, industrial food system has been in place, especially in the West, for over 50 years. The effects of processed foods high in salt and sugar are clear. Our addiction to sweet foods does not lead to the healthiest decisions, either for our health or for the planet.
One thing is for sure, most people are familiar with sweetened foods and drinks. In fact, most people are much more used to sweetened goods than they realize.
If you are trying to cut down and minimize your exposure to the dangers of artificial sweeteners, what’s the best way to go about it?
Eat More Whole Foods
The popular grocery store has its name for a reason. Whole foods are foods that have not been industrially processed. In other words, when you pick them up at the grocery store, they look pretty much the same as they did in the field or on the tree.
By eating a variety of whole foods, you will be able to ensure you are getting all of the compounds that you need to thrive. This includes natural sugars. If you do this, you will not consume artificial sweeteners as much.
What are the different whole food groups to include in your meals that will ensure you get the sugar you need?
- Non-starchy vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, mushrooms, garlic, and peppers, to name a few.
- Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, yams, corn, plantains.
- Fruits: Strawberries, apples, oranges, mangoes, berries.
- Whole grains: Quinoa, brown rice, barley, farro, bulgur.
- Beans: Kidney beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, pinto beans, lentils, black-eyed peas.
If you live in an area where grocery stores are expensive or hard to reach, there are still options. Many towns and cities have community supported agriculture (CSA) options.
By joining these programs, you can receive weekly deliveries of fresh produce from a local farm. These programs can be less costly because they take out the middleman (the grocery store). They can also encourage you to experiment with different fruits and vegetables that you have never tried before!
Cook at Home More Often
Sugar and other sweeteners come in a wide range of premade, frozen, and restaurant meals. Laws are being passed around the world to give consumers more transparency into what processed foods are made with. But it can still be difficult to manage your sugar intake when eating out.
What’s more, it can be tricky to find out whether they are using real sugar or artificial sweeteners.
When you make your food at home, you can decide how much sweetener you want. For a lot of us, though, we are really busy. So it can be hard to find the time to cook at home.
Here are a few ways to make more food at home—which can save your diet and your wallet.
- Meal prep: If you have a few hours on the weekend, try to cut up some veggies or even soak some beans. That way, when you are busier, you can throw some on the grill or in the oven for a quick and healthy meal.
- Make your own condiments: A big source of sugar is in the sauces we use. Making your own salad dressings, mayonnaise, ketchup, and barbecue sauces can help cut your sugar intake.
- Buy a cookbook: There are a lot of cookbooks out there to help you find meals that are easy and quick to make. A lot of times, cookbooks can help you plan, and follow through with, cooking at home.
- Subscribe to a meal delivery service: If your hatred of the grocery store line is the main reason you don’t cook at home, check out a meal delivery service. Many of them use mostly whole foods, and they give you instructions on how to cook them.
Read the Label
Sometimes, a lack of time or energy means we pick up something prepared from the grocery store. It happens to all of us.
Even though you aren’t making the food, you can still try to find products that are less processed. Many items must now be clearly labeled with ingredients, giving you more information on what is actually inside.
When you check a label for artificial sweeteners, look for these things:
- Calories: If it has zero calories, it may use artificial sweeteners.
- Sugar: How many grams of sugar does it have? Using this number, you can determine if the item has been sweetened. Plus, you can calculate what percentage of your daily sugar it will consume.
- Ingredient list: Look for the artificial sweeteners listed above. If you don’t see them, the product may contain sugar alcohols or just regular table sugar.
Moderate Your Added Sugar
Sure, cooking at home is a great way to control your diet. Most of us still want to go out sometimes. It’s almost unavoidable, whether for convenience or for your personal or work life. Getting coffee or meeting friends for dinner is a big part of modern culture.
If you do find yourself out, there are still things you can do to limit your intake of sugar and sweeteners.
- Stick to regular coffee: The fancy drinks at your local coffee store are tasty, but they can often be packed with sugar. If you order a regular coffee, you can be in control of the kind and amount of sweetener you use.
- Sauce on the side: At restaurants, the sauces over meats and vegetables can often be the largest source of sugar. If you ask for your sauce on the side, you can control how much goes on your plate.
- Limit your cocktails: Alcohol, in general, has quite a bit of sugar in it. Cocktails, however, are often made with a lot of juices on top of the alcohol itself.
- Resist dessert: Sometimes, you gotta have dessert. Obviously, it is going to be packed with sugar. It can be problematic if you have one after every meal.
Artificial sweeteners are a symptom of a much larger problem—a modern addiction to sugar. Very few people are safe from the grip of sugar and sweetened foods. Sugar addiction is a real problem that much of the population faces.
Artificial sweeteners have often been portrayed as the cure-all for problems related to sugar. In reality, the science isn’t clear on the dangers of artificial sweeteners at all yet. What we do know is that they tend to cause more water quality problems than sugar does.
If you are using artificial sweeteners as a way to transition from a high sugar diet to a healthier lifestyle, they can, perhaps, be useful in the short term.
Ultimately, however, a change in diet is the only way to be certain to avoid any possible dangers from artificial sweeteners. Try to only eat foods containing natural sugars, and maintain a regular exercise regimen to keep weight off.
In the long run, artificial sweeteners won’t do what is needed to beat the obesity epidemic. That will require overhauling much of the modern food and exercise ethos.
That being said, desserts and breakfast pastries every once in a while can still be a treat. As with everything, moderation is key.