Artificial sweeteners are a controversial topic in the nutrition world. Some argue that a no-calorie alternative is better than high calories from sugar, while others argue that artificial sweeteners may lead to more negative health effects than a high-sugar diet. As added sugars make up a significant portion of the average American diet, food manufacturers are constantly looking for a low-calorie substitute.
To make things easier to navigate, here are some pros and cons to consider when thinking about whether to include artificial sweeteners in your diet.
Types of Artificial Sweeteners
- Sucralose (Splenda) – Made from adding chlorine to sugar molecules.
- Saccharin (Sweet n’ Low) – The oldest artificial sweetener. Made from benzoic sulfilimine and is up to 700 times sweeter than table sugar.
- Acesulfame (Sunnett or Sweet One) – Made from acesulfame potassium.
- Aspartame (Equal) – Made from the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Also includes methanol.
- Neotame – Similar to aspartame and made from phenylalanine and aspartic acid.
- Stevia (Truvia or Pure Via) – Extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant. The extracts are processed before they’re packaged and sold, putting them in the same category as an artificial sweetener.
- Sugar alcohols (Xylitol, Sorbitol, etc.) – Sugar molecules with an alcohol attached. Naturally occur in some fruits.
How Your Body Reacts to an Artificial Sweetener
When you eat regular sugar, your blood transports the sugar to your cells, where it’s either turned into energy or put into storage for later use. Sugar can be stored as glycogen (the body’s storage form of sugar) or turned into fatty acids and deposited into fat cells.
Meanwhile, most artificial sweeteners are man-made chemicals that the human body wasn’t designed to process. That said, our bodies are unable to absorb some artificial sweeteners. For example, sugar alcohols like xylitol or sorbitol don’t get absorbed. They sit in the GI tract, where they can cause gas, bloating or diarrhea.
If the artificial sweetener is absorbed, the body recognizes it as a foreign substance or toxin. Instead of going to different cells in our body, artificial sweeteners travel straight to our liver. The liver then has to get rid of them, similar to how your liver responds to drinking alcohol.
Benefits of Artificial Sweeteners
- Sweetness without sugar: One of the main selling points of artificial sweeteners is the ability to add sweetness to foods without adding any actual sugar.
- Calorie control: Sugar substitutes have significantly less calories than real sugar. Most of them don’t truly contain zero calories, but they contain such a negligible amount that manufacturers can write “No Calories” on the label.
- Used in weight-loss diets: Prior to beginning a weight-loss diet, a person may be accustomed to eating sugary beverages and foods. Consuming artificial sweeteners can provide a “bridge” for a person who’s changing their eating habits. It allows them to slowly wean off of real sugar and eventually cut out sweetened foods and beverages.*
- Diabetics/pre-diabetics: Artificial sweeteners don’ affect blood sugar the same way that real sugar does, making it useful for people managing diabetes or pre-diabetes.*
Disadvantages of Artificial Sweeteners
- Possible link to diseases: Numerous studies have examined the link to artificial sweeteners to various cancers and diseases. The FDA currently recognizes artificial sweeteners as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe). However, future research may cause certain artificial sweeteners to be taken off this list and be banned in the United States.
- Ingestion of man-made chemicals: Most artificial sweeteners (with the exception of sugar alcohols and stevia) are man-made chemicals that don’t occur in nature. This suggests that the human body wasn’t biologically designed to handle these chemicals.
- May lead to more sugar cravings: Because artificial sweeteners aren’t real sugar, they may not satisfy your sugar cravings. This can lead to overeating to satisfy these cravings.
Alternatives to Artificial Sweeteners
Generally, we say it’s better to consume small amounts of something natural than high amounts of something artificial. There are many natural sweeteners that can be used instead of artificial sweeteners.
- Agave nectar
- Pure maple syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Date sugar
- Raw cane sugar
The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day for women (equivalent to 24 grams or 100 calories) and less than 9 teaspoons per day for men (equivalent to 36 grams or 150 calories).
*Consult with your physician or registered dietitian prior to using artificial sweeteners for weight loss or diabetes management.
Bobby is the community and social media manager at Zipongo. He has a degree in nutrition and dietetics and previously worked as a health educator.