Curious about artificial sweeteners?

There are often many questions around the use of artificial sweeteners. The Food, Drug and Administration (FDA) has given their nod of approval on a number of these highly intense sweeteners, including saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame. They’re generally recognized as safe (GRAS). But we still wonder what effect do they have on our health? Are they good or bad for our health?

Thanks to guest blogger, Sierra King, we’ll take a closer review on artificial sweeteners. Sierra is currently an undergraduate student at California State University Northridge studying to get her Bachelor’s degree in Family and Consumer Sciences, with a focus on Nutrition & Dietetics. She hopes to become a Registered Dietitian after she completes her education and training.

The Scoop on Artificial Sweeteners

Guest blog by Sierra King
Reviewed by Julie Tang, MS, RDN, CNSC

Have you ever wondered if artificial sweeteners are good or bad for you? Well you are not alone. In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at what they are and how they affect a person’s body. We’ll need to first take into account that artificial sweeteners and even sugar affects everyone’s bodies differently. This blog is meant to be informational, but not intended to replace your provider’s medical advice.

To begin, there is a difference between low calorie sweeteners and zero calorie sweeteners. Low calorie sweeteners are modified natural sugars; they are also known as sugar alcohols and they usually have an “ol” at the end of their names. For instance, some common sugar alcohols are sorbitol, maltitol, and lactitol. Sugar alcohols are naturally derived from fruits and vegetables. Due to their chemical structure, they are partially resistant to digestion. While they provide some calories, they provide fewer calories than regular sugar such as sucrose. Sugar alcohols also affect the blood sugar levels less than regular sugar. Zero calorie sweeteners, also known as artificial sweeteners, are sugar substitutes that are synthesized in laboratories.These sweeteners have no calories and will not raise a person’s blood glucose level due to the fact that the body is unable to digest them. The artificial sweeteners that are commonly used are saccharin (Sweet ‘N’ Low), aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). These sweeteners can be found added to foods such as desserts, gums, and drinks to make them taste sweet. Compared to regular sugar, artificial sweeteners are 180 times to 8000 times sweeter.

Some people may choose to use artificial sweeteners if they have diabetes or if they are trying to manage their weight. When a person eats carbohydrates, the body breaks it down into sugars. This increases the sugar levels in the bloodstream which signals the pancreas to release a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps lower blood sugar by bringing the sugar into the cells to be used primarily for energy, but also for many other different body functions. The liver stores the excess sugars as glycogen to use as energy when needed. However, if a person has either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, their body is unable to process sugar properly due to lack of insulin production (type 1 diabetes) or insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes) which can lead to a build up of sugar in their bloodstream. When artificial sweeteners are consumed,the sweetener goes through the body and is not absorbed. There are no sugars that can build up and cause the blood sugar levels to rise. For those managing their weight, artificial sweeteners may be commonly used based on the theory that they can continue to enjoy sweetened foods and beverages without the calories.

Even though artificial sweeteners do not have calories or raise blood sugar levels, there are still some concerns when people consume them. Some research indicates that when people eat artificial sweeteners regularly, it can cause them to have side effects such as headaches, nausea, stomach cramps, anxiety, diarrhea, or complications with vision. It is good to keep this in mind if you are considering drinking a diet soda or eating sugar free foods, as these potential side effects are not great to have. Due to the fact that artificial sweeteners can be intensely sweet, another concern is they can trick our brains. Our brains enjoy eating sweets because it signals to them that this food provides calories to keep us full and satisfied. By consuming artificial sweeteners, a person’s palate might change. When they eat foods with natural sugars such as fruits or vegetables, it can leave that person feeling unsatisfied and desiring more sweets because their palate has developed a tolerance for the intense sweeteners from artificial sweeteners. In addition, because artificial sweeteners are technically calorie free, there is the potential to overcompensate with other high caloric foods in the diet and ultimately disrupt natural hunger and satiety signals. These factors can potentially lead to overeating and unintended weight gain.

Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols approved by the FDA are generally indicated safe to consume, however, because side effects and long term use of artificial sweeteners are still being researched, we still do not truly know how they affect a person’s body long term. In addition, certain groups including pregnant and lactating women, children and those with Phenylketonuria (PKU) may be advised to stay away from all or some artificial sweeteners due to harmful effects. When unsure, it is best to check with your provider and a Registered Dietitian.

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