Artificial sweeteners are in many food products, from ice cream to baked goods to your favorite coffee beverages. They’re popular because they provide an opportunity to enjoy sweet foods with less added sugar, and they do not contain calories. This may be useful to those with diabetes and individuals trying to reduce their sugar intake. In general, the average American consumes much more than the recommended limit of 9.5 teaspoons of added sugar per day total, and artificial sweeteners provide a loophole of sorts to get around this without cutting certain foods completely out of the diet. But is this behavior healthy? Are artificial sweeteners themselves healthy? Let’s dive into some of the details.
WHAT ARE ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Artificial sweeteners are just how they sound — sugar substitutes chemically manufactured in a lab. They are highly processed and anywhere from 200–600 times sweeter than sugar, which means much less is needed to provide sweetness. Artificial sweeteners are also non-nutritive, meaning they have no nutrients or calories. Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives, and the artificial sweeteners currently in our food system are generally recognized as safe. That’s not to say there haven’t been studies associating artificial sweeteners with various health risks and challenges, however.
The most common artificial sweeteners in our foods and sold separately for use in things like coffee and at-home baking are saccharin (Sweet and Low), aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda). Stevia is another popular sugar substitute, though to some it is not considered an artificial sweetener because it comes naturally from a plant. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners do not typically raise blood sugar or insulin levels significantly when consumed, so they may be helpful with blood sugar control for those with diabetes. Because they contain no added sugar or calories, the other thought is that artificial sweeteners may also be helpful with weight management.
Replacing foods or beverages you enjoy with an artificially sweetened version may have an oppositional effect for some individuals who consciously or subconsciously offset them with other high-calorie, high-sugar foods. In practice, I’ve also found clients who consume artificially sweetened foods tend to feel less satiated after eating them and report an increase in cravings for sweets in general.
What’s more, because they are so sweet, artificial sweeteners may change the way we taste food. A recent review found consistent alterations in taste perception among individuals consuming artificially sweetened beverages and a reduced sweet taste threshold. This can impact how we taste other more naturally sweetened foods, like fruit, and make them less appealing.
Another review found artificial sweeteners to be consistently linked to weight gain, increased food intake, altered blood sugar control, decreased satiety signaling and alterations in the gut microbiome. Much of these findings are due to possible effects artificial sweeteners may have on taste receptors and the secretion of hormones that regulate blood sugar control and our hunger and fullness cues. Various animal studies in this review also pointed toward the likelihood artificial sweeteners may impact the gut microflora negatively by reducing the diversity of gut bacteria. This is concerning, as we know healthy gut bacteria helps support immunity, hormone production and regulates the digestive system.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The answer to the question posed here has some nuance. If consuming artificial sweeteners helps some people with diabetes control blood sugar, they may be a healthy choice for them at times. However, too much of any one thing may not be the best for health long-term (even Brussels sprouts!), and it’s important to take inventory of your diet. It’s also entirely possible to control blood sugar by making other dietary choices and consuming little to no artificial sweeteners. This is the approach I typically use with clients.
For generally healthy people without diabetes, I would recommend limiting artificial sweeteners because the available information is so mixed and has some concerning elements. If your consumption of artificial sweeteners is high, this may require some work to get your taste buds used to a new normal. A weaning process, or cutting down on artificial sweeteners gradually, is useful and can eventually lead to more sensitivity to naturally sweet foods. It can also be helpful to look at your diet as a whole, and identify the areas where you can do without artificial sweeteners and areas you may want them from time to time (e.g., in some coffee beverages). Remember, life and nutrition are all about balance and keeping the big picture in mind.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.