If you’ve ever had a diet soda, you’ve consumed artificial sweeteners. If you’ve ever dumped one of those pink, yellow or green packets into your coffee with abandon, you’ve had artificial sweeteners. If you’ve ever chewed sugar-free gum...you’ve had artificial sweeteners. And there’s a good chance you've welcomed the fact that they have low or even zero calories.
BUT—are the potential side effects of artificial sweeteners really worth the tradeoff?
Artificial sweeteners—synthetic, non-nutritive additives used as substitutes for sugars, usually in processed foods but also sold for home use—are likely NOT the solution to better health and a cleaner diet.
For one thing, there are different kinds of artificial sweeteners, and for each one of these chemicals, there are debates raging in the food industry about its particular safety risks (even including cancer!).
For the large part, there is no consensus on many of these debates. Food regulation measures toward restricting artificial sweeteners have changed again and again over time, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the safety of these substances.
Because more studies need to be done, it’s hard to say with certainty what the effects of artificial sweeteners will be on your body.
But one thing that seems to bear a lot of evidence is that even though artificial sweeteners contain zero calories, they can still lead to weight gain.
How is that possible, you ask?
This isn't a simple case of calories = bad, zero calories = good. Instead of thinking about weight loss as fewer calories consumed, we need to think of it in two parts: more total calories out (through exercise and digestion) than calories in (through eating).
Not only can artificial sweeteners cause fat storage and decrease the body’s ability to eliminate calories, but they can also cause carb and sugar cravings, meaning an influx in the very kinds of calories you were trying to avoid in the first place! WHAT?
Think about it: What’s the point of a zero-calorie snack if it causes you to store calories and crave calories?
And there's more...
A recent study showed that an increase in the artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame potassium saw an increase in diabetes and obesity among lab rats.
Anti-aspartame activists have challenged use of the substance on the grounds that it causes everything from headaches and dizziness to seizures, birth defects, Alzheimer’s, depression, multiple sclerosis, ADHD, lupus, cancer—the list goes on.
Research is ongoing. But at the very least, aspartame should definitely be avoided by anyone who has PKU, a type of condition where phenylalanine builds up in the body, sometimes leading to seizures, mental disorders, intellectual disabilities, and other problems.
Artificial sweeteners may also disrupt the balance of gut flora, potentially causing all sorts of physical and emotional effects.
Moreover, a recent study (4) showed that consumption of artificial sweeteners led to a 36% increase in incident metabolic syndrome (basically when you have a specific group of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat on your waist, and high cholesterol...no thank you!). It also showed a 67% increase in type 2 diabetes! If that’s not enough to make you rethink artificial sweeteners in favor of natural sweeteners, we don’t know what is!
Sucralose has been linked to a variety of physical side effects, including stomach issues, pain, high blood sugar, etc. But it’s also been linked to a number of emotional effects, including depression and panic attacks.
It’s also thought that sucralose disables the body from being able to absorb medicine. So if you’re taking medicine for anything from a headache to cancer symptoms, your medication might not be effective if you’re also using artificial sweeteners.
Like we said, the science is patchy. But judge for yourself. Just look up people’s reviews of Splenda online at places like Consumer Affairs (5). Many people start using these ingredients, then notice distressing health problems, so they stop using the sweeteners and then see those health problems diminish or completely disappear.
If so many people’s experiences and the potential scientific effects of artificial sweeteners are so bad, why do companies continue to use them?
Well, it allows them to claim “low” or “no” sugar on their labels, knowing that sugar content is one of the top things people are checking. It also allows companies to list a drink or snack as having zero calories, even though that very snack or beverage could cause an increase in calories (and therefore weight gain) in other ways.
Not all artificial sweeteners are created Equal (...get it?). Different kinds will have different effects. But without a lot of trial and error, it can be hard to tell which ones you will have the worst reactions to. Plus, wouldn’t you rather eat natural ingredients than a bunch of artificial chemicals anyway?
If you don’t want to take the risk of consuming artificial sweeteners, look out for the following ingredients in particular when you’re at the grocery: Acesulfame Potassium, Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin, and Sucralose.
Your best bet is to opt instead for snacks that are labeled “no artificial sweeteners.” Here at FitJoy, we NEVER use any artificial sweeteners in our protein bars (read more here or watch more here about why we say no to maltitol!). In fact, we don’t use ANY artificial ingredients whatsoever. Instead, we keep our sugar content low by using natural sweeteners like stevia and erythritol. That’s just one way we’re ahead of the game when it comes to the ingredients in our bars.
All nutritional content has been reviewed by FitJoy's food science expert.
The FitJoy Team
Our team likes to stay in the know and ahead of the game when it comes to eating, exercise, and wellness in general! We take the latest buzz in the nutrition world and make it easily translatable for your own life.