Let’s Start With My Personal Disclaimer
First, I have some confessions. I consume artificial sweeteners. Still, even after researching the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners. Not daily but pretty regularly.
Diet Pepsi is my crack. Growing up, the garage refrigerator was full of it. Moreover, that refrigerator’s sole purpose was to keep Diet Pepsi and beer cold. To this day, I swear Diet Pepsi in cans tastes better than in a bottle. Honestly, that’s not all I consume. I also sometimes use sugar-free syrup in my coffee. I also drink other artificially sweetened beverages.
So, my guilt is out there for all to see. I can also admit artificial sweeteners are bad for me. In addition, I don’t think anyone benefits much from them. As a result, I would recommend people take them out of their diets.
I know I am in the group with many health risks and no benefits. As a result, over the years I’ve mostly gotten rid of them. That is except when going out for a meal or things are crazy busy.
What I’ve Put Together
So, this article is a summary of the top ten dangers of artificial sweeteners. I’ll also go over the benefits. Additionally, I’ve provided my opinion. As a Registered Dietitian, I do have some biases. So, at the end I’ve listed some key articles for those who are interested.
But as you read this, remember that I’m not innocent. I continue to have them (at least to a lesser degree). Now that all my confessions are out of the way let’s get started on the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners. Also, what we know and don’t know about them.
This is a long one article. Hence, here are the practical ways to avoid the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners:
- Don’t have them (at all)
- If you do use them, use as little as possible
- If you are using them, use stevia
Here is the long version of how I came to that conclusion:
Before We Begin: What Are Artificial Sweeteners Anyway?
Before we go over the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners, let’s make sure we are on the same page. An artificial sweetener is added to food because they taste incredibly sweet. At the same time, they have zero or few calories.
Further, their sweetness by far surpasses that of any natural form of sugar. They aren’t absorbed well, or sometimes at all. However, some can get into the body and others can affect the gut.
They are both natural and man-made. Most of the research I am reviewing focuses on the older man-made versions. Simply because we don’t have much data on the newer ones.
Just because something is natural does not mean it is good for you, or that you should consume it. After all, saturated fat is natural too.
These sweeteners come in many forms. They are made sometimes to improve on the taste of other sweeteners. Sometimes to decrease health risks. Sometimes they can do both.
Food companies use them to help people limit their calories and sugar. So, they allow food makers to create foods that taste incredibly sweet. Hopefully without raising blood sugar levels and without providing calories.
The Basics of Each Artificial Sweetener
Commercial name: Sweet One, Sunett, Swiss Sweet
Scientific name – Acesulfamine potassium (synthetic sweetener).
Digestion – we absorb all of it but can’t break it down or use it as energy (basically it goes out in the same form it came in).
Commercial name: Equal, NutraSweet:
Scientific name – Aspartame (synthetic sweetener)
Digestion: we absorb most of it as proteins and a small amount as methanol. Our body turns methanol into formaldehyde. From there it is broken down into formic acid in about 1-2 minutes. We also make or get formaldehyde from many fruits, fruit juices, coffee, vegetables and alcohol.
As terrible as it sounds, it actually doesn’t affect the amount normally present in our bodies, and often contains less methanol than other healthier foods. Also, even in people who regularly have aspartame, less than 10% of their daily methanol intake came from the artificial sweetener.
Commercial name: Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin
Scientific name – Saccharin (synthetic sweetener)
Digestion – we absorb about 85% but can’t break it down or use it for energy
Commercial name: Stevia
Scientific name – Steviol glycosides (natural, plant derived sweetener)
Digestion – we break it down into glucuronide, which we can’t break down or use for energy
Commercial name: Splenda
Scientific name: Sucralose (synthetic sweetener)
Digestion – we absorb about 15% but can’t break it down or use it for energy
Now that we know what to be on the lookout for, we can finally get to how I evaluated the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners.
Why I Prefer Long-Term Population Studies
Sorry, there’s just one more point I need to make about research I chose. The majority of info in the top 10 risks of artificial sweeteners comes from long-term studies.
The lab studies often showed minimal concern with them. Even at times some benefits. Often when concerns came up, they used high doses in lab animals. Additionally, those same animal risks were not then seen in humans.
Hence, I prefer studies that look at the people as a whole. So, this is where I focused when evaluating the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners.
These studies don’t focus on short-term results. Like those from very controlled labs. Instead, they look at what happens when we have artificial sweeteners over our life time. Most importantly, they show how they affect us as a population.
Why Stevia isn’t in the Data
As a side note, I want to point out that many studies show Stevia has some benefits. Among them are improving inflammation, blood sugar control, heart disease and blood pressure.
So, it seems Stevia is the best sweetener currently available. However, we have little long-term information in the American population.
There is some information using other countries. However, we have a different diet, lifestyle, and use of sweeteners. So we can’t simply guess that our outcomes will be the same. The review below covers what we know from decades of exposure.
However, with Stevia being a newer sweeter, it likely had minimal (if any) impact on the studies. Most of them would reflect the older sweeteners with Stevia’s effects to be determined.
Additional Pieces to Consider
Often sweeteners did not show many of the concerns with short term intake. So, this raises a lot of questions. In addition to artificial sweeteners, maybe these people are also less active?
Or they live in areas with greater pollution? Or maybe they eat more processed food? Also less vegetables? Who knows?! Sometimes it’s just hard to see how the details play upon the big picture.
Additionally, this may not reflect your life. Also, in science you never really get everyone reacting the same way. Basically, it just means there is a higher risk of them.
So, while reading keep in mind all of my disclaimers. Below are what the research shows are the top 10 dangers of having artificial sweeteners in your diet.
The Top 10 Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial Sweetener Danger #1 – Overweight and Obesity
It seems counterintuitive that consuming a calorie-free food would increase your weight, right? Isn’t that why people consume them to begin with?
Unfortunately, if you took 100 of us who regularly consume artificially sweetened beverages, lined up beside 100 of those who don’t, our group of artificial sweetener consumers would be more overweight or obese than those who don’t drink them. Not fair, right?
There are many guesses as to why this happens. Maybe our group started out overweight and still has some of that weight hanging around?
My concern with this thought is that I see many, many teenagers and younger kids consume them when their bodies are thin and still growing. This group, in the long run, is ending up more overweight than those who never drank artificially sweetened beverages to begin with. Either way, it is sad seeing this happen to people (especially kids), but unfortunately it does occur more often than not.
Artificial Sweetener Danger #2 – Increased Desire for Sweet Foods
Artificial sweeteners change the way you taste food. Unfortunately, since they are so much sweeter than sugar, consuming them regularly makes other foods seem, well, not as sweet, or sometimes not sweet at all.
Then people crave sweeter and sweeter foods. Preferring intensely sweet foods leads to higher consumption of processed foods, which already tend to be sweeter than non-processed foods and a lot less healthy.
Artificial Sweetener Danger #3 – Increased Diabetes Risk
One thing we do know is that it increases risk for prediabetes and diabetes. How this happens is still a guess, but many hypotheses exist. Maybe it’s the excess weight people carry? Maybe they were already at risk (which was why they consumed them in the first place). Looking at the big picture, artificial sweeteners have a negative effect on overall health.
Other than the argument that people were simply predisposed to diabetes (there are also studies showing this is likely not the cause) there are plenty of reasons it may be the sweeteners themselves causing it. Some studies show tissue damage is caused by the sweeteners, then again it could be from increasing inflammation in the body.
Either way, we do know that your risk for diabetes goes up by having them frequently. Stevia has shown some promise for improving blood sugar control. How this plays out in the long run has yet to be determined.
Artificial Sweeteners Danger #4 – Heart Disease
Intake of artificially sweetened foods have been shown to increase risks having a heart attack in people who consume them regularly. When examined, they considered at least 24 ounces a day regular consumption and 24 ounces per week not regular. 24 ounces per week still isn’t zero, but it is a lot less than 24 per day.
Artificial Sweetener Danger #5 – Increased Blood Sugar
While taking artificial sweeteners in a lab, as a pill, or through a tube does not increase blood sugar levels, for some crazy reason, that doesn’t necessarily pan out in the real world. There, again, are many hypotheses for this.
Maybe people consuming artificial sweeteners respond subconsciously to the sweetness and eat more? Did they end up eating larger portions? Could it alter the way they digest and absorb foods?
These are all guesses though, and we really aren’t sure of all the reasons it happens. That’s crazy for something mostly not absorbed, right?
Artificial Sweetener Danger #6 – Metabolic Syndrome
Having metabolic syndrome means the risks of getting both diabetes and heart disease go up significantly. Metabolic syndrome is the combination of abdominal obesity, elevated cholesterol/triglycerides, low amounts of good cholesterol, elevated blood sugar, and high blood pressure. It is thought to be due to overall increased inflammation in the body that causes damage.
Having diabetes or heart disease is bad enough, but both?! That’s a lot less fun. Not only does the intake of artificial sweeteners increase your risk of acquiring those diseases separately, it seems to increase your risk of getting them both.
Artificial Sweetener Danger #7 – Stroke
Along with damaging to the arteries to your heart, long term artificial sweetener intake also correlates with damage the blood vessels that carry the blood to your brain. Both the heart and the brain are pretty important organs. You really can’t live without either of them.
Artificial Sweetener Danger #8 – Dementia
Intake of artificial sweeteners is associated with developing dementia from all causes, including Alzheimer’s dementia. Alzheimer’s dementia is an irreversible and progressive disease in the brain. Consequently it affects someone’s memory, thinking, and behavior.
When researchers looked into it, higher recent intakes, and higher cumulative lifetime intakes both increased risks. For anyone that has seen someone progress through the disease, it is absolutely devastating. Not only to them, but to everyone around them. Meanwhile people who just consumed sugar sweetened beverages had no increased risk of either.
Since Alzheimer’s runs in my family, this hits close to home. Looking at all the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners, this is #1 for me. Honestly, I didn’t realize the connection to Alzheimer’s until doing research for this article… so I really think I’m going to be cutting them out. It’s not worth it.
Artificial Sweetener Danger #9 – Your Gut… Specifically the Microbiome
I’m sorry, what did you say? Basically, this is about all the bacteria in your intestines. These little guys are extremely important. They affect everything including how your body interacts with and absorbs nutrients and foods. The can help strengthen your immune system. Also, they can decrease inflammation. and help with bowel regularity. And the list goes on…
Also, more and more we realize how important healthy intestinal bacteria really are. Hence, there are so many probiotics on the market today.
Artificial sweeteners have been shown in some limited studies to negatively impact gut bacteria. That is, except stevia. Some may the environment less healthy and less supportive of our digestive needs. When artificial sweeteners are consumed daily, we may change the types of bacteria in our gut.
When you think about it, it does make sense. Everything you absorb has to pass through your intestinal walls. By passing through, they interact and can affect the bacteria. Apparently, these sweeteners may not be very kind to the bacteria our body needs.
In short, those bacteria (especially the healthy and helpful ones) do not seem to like artificial sweeteners. This is one area of research that is mostly limited to laboratory data. Over time we will hopefully evaluate the microbiome of large groups. For now, we need to wait for more data.
Artificial Sweetener Danger #10 – Pregnancy: Premature Birth and Asthma
This one is familiar to most women who have been pregnant. At least I hope someone told them! We know artificial sweeteners can contribute to premature birth in pregnant women. This is seen with drinking as few as 1 or more artificially sweetened beverages a day.
Additionally, the risk is even greater when women have 4 or more artificially sweetened beverages a day. Keep in mind that one 20-ounce bottle of soda is almost 2 servings; it adds up fast.
Another study looked at the long-term health outcomes of the infants. It found that the babies born to moms who frequently used artificial sweeteners had higher rates of asthma.
Right now, there is surprisingly little research into the effects of artificial sweeteners on developing infants. That’s worrisome.
Just to Cover All My Bases – Examining the Top 3 Benefits of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial Sweeteners and Blood Sugar Control
Just like artificial sweeteners are supposed to, they do not affect blood sugar as much as regular sugar. In the information that shows they can, the difference is minimal. And most have no effect at all. This is when we look at feeding people artificial sweeteners in pill form or through a tube.
This can benefit you if you want to keep tight control of your blood sugar levels. Whether to manage diabetes, follow a specific diet plan, or whatever your reason may be. The truth is, artificial sweeteners by themselves simply don’t affect blood sugar much.
That said you have to be very aware of your portion sizes and make sure you don’t end up eating more at meals or eating more sweets. Also, many of these studies were done for a short period of time. So in the long run the other changes in the body may override this effect (see danger #5).
Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Loss
Some studies show a significant weight decrease when substituting artificially sweetened beverages for their sugary ones. These studies were done both when people did it intentionally and when they didn’t know they were drinking something different.
Keep in mind, the groups that did the substitution in were drinking full sugar soda or juice. And they consumed it regularly, often, and likely in significant amounts.
Remember, I’m someone who doesn’t regularly consume full-sugar beverages. So, this wouldn’t benefit me. Similarly, maybe you are already drinking artificially sweetened beverages. Or better, maybe you are drinking mostly beverages without sugar? Unfortunately, we won’t see any from adding artificially sweetened beverages. Bummer.
I Can’t Help But Comment Here
Now, how on earth they didn’t realize the difference is beyond me. As close as artificial sweeteners may be to the taste of sugar, they are not the same. At least not to me. Maybe you are different. Some people must not notice them much. But a whole study group? And not one? Really??
Artificial Sweeteners Don’t Cause Cancer
This has been discussed a long time. However current research shows there is no correlation with any type of cancer. For pretty much the last decade or so the research has shown no real risks. So at least we’ve got that going for us!
Your body as a system: Beyond the Top 10 Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
We covered a lot of information! And there’s just a little more to look at. These are just some of my thoughts to add to the pile.
First, we are the experimental population. Remember how I like long-term studies? And population based? Essentially that is us! How did we end up volunteering for that study? It’s really simple, there isn’t any good long-term information.
The food industry simply isn’t going to wait 80-100 years to introduce a new, improved product. And frankly, no industry does. So, here we are.
Also, they have a lot of money. Therefore, there is always the question of the influence an industry has on the studies. As a result, some studies reference the food and beverage industry as paying for them to do their research. Hmm…
Second, rats, in short-term, high doses of artificial sweeteners can cause a whole host of problems. But for humans? We don’t really know. There is some data showing it has a direct effect on cells and tissues. But there is a difference between effects on cells in a lab and real world use.
Lastly, our body is a system. I don’t think you can take anything into your body that only affects one area. With no effect anywhere else? I just don’t believe in that. Instead, I believe in treating the whole person. The whole body.
Of all the artificial sweeteners, stevia seems to be the best bet. Don’t forget though, it is going to take a few decades to tell if it’s good over time.
In the long run, at least for the older versions, there may be a correlation with artificial sweeteners and additional health risks. But for now, all the evidence isn’t in yet.
In conclusion, I believe the best bet is having a healthy diet that avoids processed foods. By doing so, you reduce the risks of all the top 10 dangers of artificial sweeteners. Additionally, this usually makes people feel better. In the end we each decide for ourselves. What will you decide?
References Used for the Top 10 Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
Low-calorie sweeteners and body weight and composition: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.082826.
Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tem.2013.05.005
Non-caloric artificial sweeteners and the microbiome: findings and challenges. DOI: 10.1080/19490976.2015.1017700
Mechanisms of Vascular Endothelial Dysfunction: The Problem with Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners. The FASEB Journal 2017 31:1_supplement, 853.9-853.9
Artificial Sweeteners, Real Risks. https://doi.org/10.1161/STROKEAHA.119.024456
The effects of water and non‐nutritive sweetened beverages on weight loss during a 12‐week weight loss treatment program. doi:10.1002/oby.20737
Sucrose-sweetened beverages increase fat storage in the liver, muscle, and visceral fat depot: a 6-mo randomized intervention study. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.022533
Early Exposure to Nonnutritive Sweeteners and Long-term Metabolic Health: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics, March 2016, VOLUME 137 / ISSUE 3
Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia. https://doi.org/10.1161/STROKEAHA.116.016027
Adverse effects of the consumption of artificial sweeteners – systematic review. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/1806-9282.62.02.120
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review. DOI: 10.3109/09637480903193049
Biological fate of low-calorie sweeteners. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuw032
Sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverage consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes in men. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.110.007922
Dietary patterns matter: diet beverages and cardiometabolic risks in the longitudinal Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.026682
Sugar and artificially sweetened beverages linked to obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcx068
Diet Drink Consumption and the Risk of Cardiovascular Events: A Report from the Women’s Health Initiative. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-014-3098-0
Effects on weight loss in adults of replacing diet beverages with water during a hypoenergetic diet: a randomized, 24-wk clinical trial. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.109397
Diet Soda Intake and Risk of Incident Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).