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Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar substitutes seem like a good idea for weight loss, but can they backfire?

By
Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N,
November 12, 2008
Episode #017

Today's episode was suggested by Leilla, Lauren, and Kelly, all of whom wrote with questions artificial sweeteners and whether they can help you lose weight (I have another episode examining sugar specifically, so check that one out for more information).

You’ve probably heard by now that we’re having a bit of a fat problem here in the United States. In fact, it’s quickly spreading around the globe. Obesity seems to be one of our more successful exports. In a country where two-thirds of the adults and one-third of the kids are overweight, it might seem that artificial sweeteners would be a pretty good idea.

The average American eats about 20 teaspoons of sugar a day, in the form of soft drinks, sweets, and other processed foods. That’s about 300 calories a day. If we replaced that much sugar with zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, we could all lose thirty pounds over the next year without even trying.

And that’s perhaps the main argument for the use of sugar substitutes: Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners can save you calories. Another advantage to zero-calorie sweeteners is that they have no effect on blood sugar levels, which can be helpful for diabetics. And, of course, unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners don’t cause tooth decay.

Drawbacks of Artificial Sweeteners

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch and artificial sweeteners have some downsides, as well. First, many people find their super-sweet taste or bitter, chemical aftertaste unpleasant. Secondly, using sugar substitutes to make cookies or other baked goods is almost always disappointing because real sugar is crucial to things like texture and browning.

Third, despite the fact that all of the artificial sweeteners have been approved for human consumption and are considered safe, some people are concerned that artificial sweeteners might be toxic or cause cancer. I don’t actually worry too much about this one—and not because I think our regulatory agencies flawlessly protect us from unsafe products.

I don’t worry about it because these products have been so heavily consumed for such a long time that if there were a connection between their use and brain cancer or something else, I think we would have seen something by now.

Nonetheless, people do report adverse effects ranging from headaches to chronic fatigue. In these cases, the problems generally go away when people stop using the sweeteners. So it’s pretty easy to test whether or not artificial sweeteners are making you feel poorly. And if they are, the solution is simply to stop using them.

No, for me the biggest concern about artificial sweeteners is this: Some studies have shown that they may actually make you hungrier, which can make it harder to stick to your diet. Ironic, isn’t it? The main advantage of artificial sweeteners is that they can save you calories. But if, at the same time, they lead you to eat more, it kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Unlike the thing about brain cancer, this one’s actually been observed in scientific studies. I’ll put some links in the show notes for those who would like to pursue this further. Researchers are still debating whether the appetite-stimulating effect of artificial sweeteners leads people to eat more calories than they would have otherwise. But it is true that, statistically, the more diet soda you drink, the more likely you are to become overweight.

I’ve never had a huge soda habit but when I did have a soda, I always figured I was better having a diet soda than drinking all that sugar. Now, I’m not so sure.

But, of course, with the Soda Stream environmentally-friendly soda maker, I have the perfect solution: Sparkling water with or without a splash of fruit juice is now my soft drink of choice. (I’ve talked about the Soda Stream before. You can learn more about this great invention on my show’s webpage.)

Sugar Substitutes Are Harder to Avoid

You used to find artificial sweeteners mostly in diet sodas and in those little pink, yellow, and blue packets. But now, they’re being added to everything from ice cream and cereal to fruit juice and sports drinks. You’ve probably bought products containing artificial sweeteners without even realizing it.

If you’d rather avoid them, you’ll need to start reading labels. The most commonly used sweeteners are sucralose (which is the generic name for Splenda), aspartame (which is also sold as Equal and Nutrasweet), and acesulfame K (aka Sweet One). Check the ingredient lists. Here’s a tip: Foods labeled “no sugar added” or “sugar-free” almost always contain artificial sweeteners. Low carb products often do, as well. 

Personally, I’ve decided that when I’m in the mood for something sweet, I’d rather have the real thing, but in moderation.

For more on sugar and obesity, I also have an episode on high fructose corn syrup you might be interested in.

For more information about sugar and sugar substitutes, see my episodes and tips about:

Administrative

For even more information, get my take on sweetened yogurts in this handy Quick Tip.

This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous. 

These tips are provided for your information and are not intended as medical advice. Please work with your health professional to determine what’s right for you. 

If you have a nutrition question for me, send an email to  nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening. Have a great day and eat something good for me!

RESOURCES: 

and body weight: a review (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
 

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