Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy?

Artificial sweeteners can be found in tons of drinks, candies, and desserts. Foods that are labeled “Sugar-free” are common places where these sweeteners might be found. They are also often put in foods that are naturally sweet, after the sugar has been removed. Artificial sweeteners have had a rocky history. They have been touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread and also as health hazards.

What are Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are low, or no-calorie additives that give foods and drinks a sweet flavor. They are used for a lot of sugar-free and diet drinks and foods. Sugar can be removed or left out and the food can retain its sweet taste. There are many artificial sweeteners that have come on the market. Some have remained while others have earned FDA bans. The most common artificial sweeteners are aspartame (NutraSweet), saccharin, and sucralose (Splenda.)

Saccharin, which was one of the first artificial sweeteners on the market (1958), was criticized for a bitter after taste. Aspartame, which came on the market in 1981, was later criticized for causing brain tumors in lab rats. Sucralose came on the market in 1998, and although it has not been attacked for health or taste reasons, it was the center of controversy over advertising claims.

Natural Sugar Substitutes

There are some natural sugar substitutes that are used in some foods. These include xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, and stevia. These substitutes, except stevia, are generally not as sweet as sugar. Stevia is considered to be 250 times as sweet as sugar (by weight.) These substitutes do not have the harsh effects that aspartame is saddled with. They are often more expensive so they are not great for mass production.

Be careful of Aspartame

Aside from the possible cancer link with aspartame, there are other drawbacks to the use of artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners have actually been linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes. It is believed that the intense sweet flavor may increase cravings for sugar and sweet flavors. Since natural sugar may not be as sweet, the body may require more to satisfy the cravings. Due to the intense sweetness, less of the artificial sweetener is used, which leads to fillers or thickeners used in many recipes. These are often additives that have no nutritional value.

Artificial sweeteners also cause a spike in insulin release. This leads to more calories being shuffled to fat stores. It also causes mild hypoglycemia leading to hunger for more sugary foods to bring the blood sugar back up. This influence of the insulin can lead to insulin insensitivity, an early precursor to diabetes. Insulin insensitivity can cause increased caloric consumption, as well.

Another issue is that the low- or no-calorie level of the foods and drinks leads people to eat more of the other higher calorie foods. A person who substitutes diet sodas for regular ones may feel safe adding an extra helping to their meal. This leads to more calories than the regular soda that was eliminated.

Overall Use Sweeteners in Moderation

Artificial sweeteners were added to foods to make them better for people looking to lose weight or combat diabetes. Ironically, these sweeteners may actually be causing the diseases they were used to combat. Most experts agree that natural sugars in moderation, and getting most of the calories from proteins and complex carbohydrates, are the best way to control weight and stave off diabetes. Artificial sweeteners may reduce the calories in a food, but may still lead to obesity.

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