Real Talk: Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for Consumption?

Photo: Forever 21

Artificial sweeteners are often met with an air of suspicion. How can a chemical used to make diet food and drink taste better while keeping calories super low be good for you? You'll find artificial sweeteners like aspartame in most diet sodas (it's one of the most common); then there are the "natural" artificial sweeteners like stevia and sucralose that are derived from natural sources but go through an artificial process by manufacturers. Are these additives too good to be true? I'm giving you my doctor's perspective, but I've also called on a nutritionist to help give you a well-rounded view.

Keep scrolling to see whether you should ditch artificial sweeteners for good.

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are low calorie or calorie-free chemical substances, which are used to sweeten foods and drinks instead of refined sugar. Sweeteners are found in thousands of products that we consume every day from desserts, fizzy drinks, ready meals and even toothpaste.

The Benefits of Sweeteners

The main advantage of artificial sweeteners is that they add a sweet taste to our food and drinks without consuming refined sugars. The main benefits of reduced sugar intake are:

  • Weight control; promoting weight loss and reducing weight gain.
  • Reducing the risk of diabetes.
  • Helping to manage symptoms of diabetes by providing a healthy alternative to sugar.
  • Reducing the risk of obesity.
  • Reduces the risk of heart disease.
  • Reduces tooth decay.

The most common sweeteners that are used in the UK are:

  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame K
  • Saccharin
  • Sorbitol
  • Stevia
  • Sucralose
  • Xylitol

Do Sweeteners Cause Weight Gain?

In recent years, the safety of artificial sweeteners has been raised: Are they truly a healthy alternative to refined sugars? The main point of uncertainty surrounds whether artificial sweeteners can cause weight gain.

Natural sugars and artificial sweeteners both have a sweet taste, but what sets them apart is that natural sugars cause an increase in blood sugars levels and artificial sweeteners do not. It is the natural rise in blood sugar that causes the body to release insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Insulin stimulates the absorption of sugars from the blood stream into cells of the body to be used as energy.

Some experts argue that the intake of artificial sweeteners may indirectly lead to weight gain, by causing an increase in appetite, which can cause people to make up for the reduced calorie intake by eating more at mealtimes. Others believe artificial sweeteners can cause metabolic syndrome and even type 2 diabetes. However, there is not firm evidence from research studies to support this theory.

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

Current evidence shows that eating or drinking artificial sweeteners are a perfectly safe alternative to sugar. Says top dietitian Sarah Carolides, "There have been plenty of reports that artificial sweeteners are addictive at best, and at worst, they are neurotoxins that stop nerve cells from working properly. E951 (aspartame) has been linked to hyperactivity in children, and questions have been raised as to whether it is linked to brain tumours, chronic fatigue, depression, epilepsy, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But to date, there has not been a definitive study that has forced these products to be withdrawn."

Summary

Overall, there is no firm evidence that sweeteners are unsafe. They are a good alternative to refined sugar, as they help manage weight gain, and they help protect your teeth against tooth decay. The main area of controversy surrounds if artificial sweeteners actually satisfy our sweet cravings as well as natural sugars, without causing a rebound in increased appetite, which could indirectly lead to weight gain.

"There are natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup and honey, that contain minerals and nutrients that can help the body in small doses," suggests Carolides. Until bigger studies are carried out, the best approach to artificial sweeteners is (as with all things related to diet and health) everything in moderation.

Next up, do waist trainers work? We have the answer.