If you’re looking to cut calories and reduce your sugar intake, there’s a good chance that you’ve already turned to low- or no-calorie artificial sweeteners to satisfy your sweet tooth. Millions of people around the globe have adopted this seemingly perfect quick fix to further their weight loss goals—but is there more than meets the taste bud when it comes to artificial sweeteners?
Today, as many as 90 percent of people living in the United States consume artificial sweeteners in some form—be it in processed foods or added as a separate sweetener. The first artificial sweetener, saccharin (more recognizably known as Sweet ’N Low), was invented in 1879 and has since paved the way for a plethora of other sweeteners to be made for home and commercial use. Labeled “nonnutritive sweeteners” because they contain so few calories, artificial sweeteners are up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar gram for gram.
Food producers have turned to these artificial sweeteners to create the low-calorie, “healthy” versions of products you find in the grocery store labeled “sugar-free.” In addition, little pink, blue, and yellow packets have become staples at every coffee machine and shop, in snack rooms, at restaurants, and in kitchen cabinets.
The promise of exponentially fewer calories and more sweetness is the main reason why artificial sweeteners are so popular. Dieters can get their sweets without the extra calories! The same thought process applies to diabetics, who often use artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute since they aren’t found to directly raise insulin levels. Also, some sweeteners, like Splenda, maintain sweetness when they’re heated, making them excellent sugar replacements for baking.
At first glance, artificial sweeteners seem like the natural choice for a sugar substitute. Extra sweetness and close to no calories? It’s what most of us imagine heaven to be! But when something sounds too good to be true, it just might be…
Last year, a team of Israeli scientists conducted a study that looked at the effects of artificial sweeteners on mice. They hoped to find evidence linking the sweeteners to obesity and other sugar related diseases, such as diabetes. Though they weren’t the first to run such an experiment, they were pioneers in terms of their rather astounding results. The team found that, when compared to glucose and sucrose, the artificial sweeteners [aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda) and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)] had altered the population of trillions of microbes in the mice’s digestive tracts. The gut bacteria that are associated with greater calorie extraction from food (which make more calories available to the body) and fat storage had increased. This means that even though nonnutritive sweeteners contain little to no calories, they may alter our gut bacteria so that more calories than necessary are taken from our food and stored in the body as fat.
The way humans (and mice) digest and extract energy relies not only on genetics but also the microbes in our guts, collectively named the “gut microbiome.” Together, microbes and genes handle the energy in our food and either store it or discard it.
After 11 weeks, the mice had extremely high blood sugar (glucose) levels, indicating that their bodies were having trouble absorbing this glucose from their blood. This is important to acknowledge, since this glucose intolerance can lead to a slew of other health issues including diabetes, and liver and heart disease.
So what does this mean for us? Scientists believe that the findings from this mice experiment could very well apply to humans. Excessive artificial sweetener use runs the risk of creating glucose intolerance that could lead to diabetes and other related diseases. Also, artificial sweeteners may not satisfy our craving for sweet like sugar. Researchers had volunteers sip water sweetened with sucralose or sugar while an MRI scan was performed. Volunteers experienced a sweet taste from both sugar and sucralose. However, the MRI scans revealed that sugar stimulated the reward system in the brain while sucralose did not. So, though we may experience a sweet taste from both sugar and sucralose, our brains may not receive the same level of pleasure and satisfaction from an artificial sugar, which may in turn leader to great cravings for sweets. Other opponents of artificial sweeteners say that these sugar substitutes can affect our brain function, lead to birth defects, and even increase the risk of developing cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Though it goes beyond the scope of this article to evaluate the merits of these claims, they are worth noting as you make your own decisions about artificial sweetener use.
On the bright side, scientists were able to reverse the microbiome changes in the mice when they introduced healthy bacteria back into their guts. So, perhaps there is hope that some of the possible negative effects of artificial sweeteners on our bodies can be reversed. Just as it’s important to know what you put into your body, it’s also important to know how it affects you. By doing a little research, you can find the best ingredients that will cater to your healthy lifestyle needs.