Putting a lid on the “downfalls” of artificial sweeteners

TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2015/02/08: Coca Cola Zero and Coca Cola Diet can boxes in a store, Coca-Cola is a carbonated soft drink sold in stores, restaurants, and vending machines throughout the world. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2015/02/08: Coca Cola Zero and Coca Cola Diet can boxes in a store, Coca-Cola is a carbonated soft drink sold in stores, restaurants, and vending machines throughout the world. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

Lately, news articles about artificial sweeteners have made headlines. People are concerned about the potential health risks, which is wise. However, headlines don’t tell the full story. What about the comparable dangers of sugar? Are artificial sweeteners really that bad in comparison?

It’s tough to muck through the science, so we’ve done it for you. The good news is that artificial sweeteners can be a part of your healthy diet in moderation, although there are some risks you should know about.

How severe are the dangers? Here’s the information you need to make an informed choice. Take an honest look at artificial sweetener benefits and their potential side effects so you can feel good about what you eat.

Sugar: A Not-So-Sweet Problem

Let’s begin by examining why scientists invented artificial sweeteners in the first place. Their original intent was to help people who can’t eat sugar or those who wish to reduce how much of this substance they consume. That’s a noble goal, as eating too much sugar can have severe adverse health effects.

According to the CDC, 96 million Americans have prediabetes, and what’s worse is 80% of them don’t realize their risk. If it advances to Type 2 diabetes, they could face a lifetime of medication unless they take strict measures to improve their diet and exercise, which isn’t always practical with modern lifestyles.

Sugar is everywhere. Even if you don’t add two cubes to your morning coffee, you find it in foods as diverse as frozen pizza, pasta sauce, soups and many prepared meals, aka TV dinners.

Adults consume an average of 17 added teaspoons of sugar when authorities like the American Heart Association recommend no more than six to nine. A single Starbucks Frappucino contains 35 grams of the sweet stuff.

Therefore, artificial sweeteners can play a vital role in reducing America’s overall diabetes risk. However, is there a trade-off? What are the common side effects of artificial sweeteners, and are there any benefits?

Common Artificial Sweetener Side Effects

What are some frequently used artificial sweeteners and their side effects? Let’s begin by going down the list of available types on the market today:

  • Acesulfame Potassium (Sweet One)
  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet)
  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Erythritol (found in many Ketogenic products)

There are a few others, but these are the five you’ll most likely encounter on ingredient labels. Many of them have considerable controversy.

1. Sucralose
The most recent bad news came out about Splenda. A new study found that a chemical formed during digestion disrupts your DNA. A single beverage sweetened with the stuff puts you over the toxicological threshold for genotoxic substances according to European guidelines.

2. Aspartame
Aspartame is a problem for people with phenylketonuria, who lack the enzyme to process the phenylalanine, which allows it to accumulate to dangerous levels in the body. It’s also a no-go for people with tardive dyskinesia and those with advanced liver disease. Other studies may suggest additional risks, depending on how you interpret the results.

3. Erythritol
Erythritol may increase your cardiovascular disease risk. Researchers found that those with existing heart disease who use this artificial sweetener have a higher risk of heart attack or stroke. It’s also not good for pets, so keep Fido and Kitty at bay.

Artificial Sweeteners and Your Microbiome

Furthermore, there’s increasing evidence that artificial sweeteners affect your intestinal microbiome. This term refers to the healthy bacteria colonies in your gut that are your body’s workhorses, performing the hard work of digestion and sending various messages up the vagus nerve to your brain.

Researchers gave study participants either aspartame, sucralose, saccharin or stevia every day for 14 days, with another given sugar as a control group. They found significant differences in the gut microbiomes of those using the artificial sweeteners, particularly those taking sucralose or saccharin. Furthermore, those that took sucralose or saccharin showed changes in their blood sugar control.

Artificial Sweetener Benefits Society Shouldn’t Overlook

Despite the risks, the FDA continues to rate the substances above as safe. Part of their reasoning is likely that the alternative — natural sugar — may imperil your health even more.

You probably guessed that four out of five dentists would be sorely disappointed if sugarless gum disappeared from the market tomorrow, for example. According to the American Dental Association, this habit increases saliva flow, reducing your risk of cavities.

Keeping your teeth healthier is an artificial sweetener benefit you shouldn’t overlook. Scientists have linked poor oral hygiene to higher heart disease and dementia risk. Lowering your sugar intake, brushing and using sugarless gum judiciously when you can’t brush could improve your overall health.

Furthermore, artificial sweeteners also benefit the calorie-conscious. Over 40% of American adults qualify as obese, and more are overweight. These conditions substantially increase their risks of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also make chronic pain more difficult to manage by adding stress to joints, causing painful arthritis and fibromyalgia flares.

Natural Alternatives to Artificial Sweeteners

There are two natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners you can explore. Both are considered zero-calorie and won’t spike blood glucose, increasing diabetes risk. They are:

Monk fruit: Known as Luo han guo in native Chinese, this Southeast Asian fruit is several times sweeter than sugar. You won’t find it in stores, as it rots hours after harvest, but it produces an artificial sweetener that lacks the aftertaste of stevia. Unfortunately, it’s quite pricey, but a good alternative.
Stevia: This substance from a South American plant is several times sweeter than sugar. However, read your ingredients carefully. Many manufacturers cut stevia with erythritol to prevent clumping, which may come with health risks.

You can find monk fruit and stevia in liquid and granulated form. You’ll also find powdered monk fruit you can use in baking to whip up low-calorie frostings for cakes and cookies.

The Bottom Line: Moderation

The takeaway to all this is that no one substance will transform you from healthy to disease-ridden overnight. All of these substances remain on the market, which means that they’re relatively safe when consumed in moderation.

However, moderation is the key. Too much of anything tips the delicate homeostatic balance in your body, making you more prone to disease.

Therefore, rather than purging all artificial sweeteners or all sugar from your diet — a daunting task even if you’re a nutritionist — take a sensible approach. Instead of swapping every sugary treat for an artificially sweetened version, simply eat the sweet stuff as an occasional dessert, not an every-mealtime indulgence.

The Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners play a vital role in reducing sugar consumption. There are also other artificial sweetener benefits, such as preventing dental cavities.

Ultimately, only you can decide if the side effects of artificial sweeteners outweigh the benefits. Educate yourself about the potential health risks and make an informed decision.

Next. Starbucks drinks: How much sugar do frappuccinos have?. dark