Over the last several years there has been a variety of research done in regards to artificial sweeteners. Now in our food supply we have tons of foods/beverages that are made with artificial sweeteners to decrease the overall calories. Is this really the best thing? I have set out to answer this question for the American Diabetes Association of Indianapolis. I have been asked to do a nutrition TV segment and a talk with a diabetes support group on this topic.
I really enjoy being able to do research and increase my own knowledge on a topic and help to clear up confusion that is out there in the media. So here we go ... updated synopsis of the information that I have read and put together on the effect of artificial sweeteners on our bodies.
- What are artificial sweeteners? These are compounds, that taste sweet, and are used in place of regular sugar. You may have heard of sugar substitutes, nonnutritive sweeteners or noncaloric sweeteners. They are all the same thing. The theory behind them comes from the fact they are sweeter than sugar so you would use less to obtain the same level of sweetness and that decrease the amount of calories being consumed.
- What is the history behind artificial sweeteners? Saccharin (or as we know it Sweet N' Low) was actually discovered by accident at John Hopkins in 1870 when researchers were working with coal tar and cigarettes and ended up creating saccharin. They realized the tip of the cigarette tasted sweet and that was the beginning of artificial sweeteners. These compounds were also found to cost less to use and that helped to influence their surge in being used as a food additive.
- What are the Pros/Cons of artificial sweeteners? I think that there are two sides of everything and I believe that artificial sweeteners have some positive and negative qualities about them. I hope this information helps you make an informed decision about using artificial sweeteners in your daily life.
- Decrease overall calories - This has been the main reason that artificial sweeteners have gained popularity, because they decrease the calories in sweetened beverages and food. This can be helpful when you are trying to decrease your overall caloric intake to lose weight. More research is being done to look into how effective this small decrease in calories is to overall weight loss.
- Creates sweetened options for diabetics - These artificial have been helpful to the diabetic community to provide them with "sweet" food options that may not cause the immediate spike in their blood glucose levels. As a RD I do not think simply substituting regular sugar for an artificial sweeteners is a positive. You need to make healthy choices and not feeling justified in eating the whole sleeve of cookies just because they are "sugar free."
- Fine in moderation - I think of artificial sweeteners as a tool. They can be helpful if you want to decrease calories, or need to watch your blood glucose response. Having 1 Diet Coke a day is fine, but having 4-5 Diet Cokes per day is not ok. Everything in moderation and that applies to artificial sweeteners as well.
- Variety of products = variety of options - There are so many different types of artificial sweeteners now. Often these artificial sweeteners end up having an after taste, but with the variety of products you can find one that you prefer. Just remember moderation with whatever product you choose.
- Still contains calories - The thing about artificial sweeteners is that they are not "free of calories." You use less of them, because they are sweeter than sugar, you don't consume as much and the calorie amount is low. If it is low enough that it doesn't have to be accounted for on a food label, then it can be labeled as "calorie free" or "low calorie." For example 1 packet of Splenda = 3.3kcal and if you were consume 12 of those packets in your coffee then you would be ingesting 40kcal. So nothing is free of calories, it comes down the amount of that artificial sweetener being consumed.
- Brain perceives sweetness and may trigger insulin release - There is more research that has coming out looking at the relationship between artificial sweeteners and your insulin response. So when you eat an artificial sweetener, it tastes sweet, sends a signal to your brain to release insulin from your pancreas, the artificial sweetener isn't absorbed like glucose and you experience hyperinsulinemia (or high insulin levels). If this happens routinely it could cause you to become insulin resistant. Obviously, more research needs to be done, but it is interesting finds and could have a big impact on the artificial sweetener market in the future.
- May alter gut flora - Research has also been looking at how your body deals with artificial sweeteners in your GI tract. Since they aren't absorbed the same way as sugar, this can cause a change in your prebiotics/probiotics in your GI tract. This ultimately creates a different microflora in your gut. That could have other secondary ramifications. Again, it will be interesting to see what that means for people consuming artificial sweeteners on a regular basis.
- What do you recommend? It all comes down to moderation. The FDA has ruled artificial sweeteners as safe and if consumed in moderation I think they be a great tool to limit your calorie intake and if you are diabetic can help control your blood glucose levels. If you want a beverage or something sweetened with an artificial sweetener, make sure that you fit in some water. That is always the best thing to reach for when you need to re-hydrate. More research will be coming out in the next several years and I excited to see how this affects our recommendations regarding artificial sweeteners.