Artificial sweeteners have always had a rocky reputation. First they were heralded for their calorie-cutting benefits.
There are several different types of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame (found in Equal); saccharine, in Sweet’n Low and others; and sucralose (Splenda). Other sugar substitutes are not considered “artificial” even though they may be made or made in part in the lab. Stevia plant extracts are considered “novel sweeteners,” and the FDA has only approved certain refined formulas, as there are concerns that cruder and whole-leaf preparations may have negative health effects.
Decades-old rumors linking artificial sweeteners and cancer appear to be unfounded. The connection initially came from studies of saccharine that were done in rats in the 1970s. The National Cancer Institute plainly states that there’s no clear evidence of an association between the FDA-approved sweeteners and cancer in humans. Now, new animal research is bringing old questions back to the forefront, with findings that mice fed high doses of sucralose—which the FDA deemed safe for human consumption in 1998—developed malignant cancers, including leukemia. The researchers, noting that there are millions of people who consume artificial sweeteners, said that follow-up studies to expand on these results and investigate their safety are “urgent.” But it’s important to remember that humans aren’t rodents, and—as we saw 40 years ago—what happens in a mouse or rat doesn’t necessarily happen in a human. Plus, while many people use these products daily, they aren’t consuming them in high doses like rodents in a lab.
While scientists have more work to do to sort out whether any artificial sweeteners can cause cancer in humans, there are other things we do know that may leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Here’s some not-so-sweet news about the effects of artificial sweeteners in your body, and how they might be sabotaging your dietary goals.
1. They may rev up your appetite.
According to research published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, several studies have shown that artificial sweeteners increase people’s appetites. In particular, some people actually feel hungrier after consuming aspartame. That may be because your body associates sweet with calories (and energy). When it doesn’t get the fuel it was expecting from the zero-calorie sweetener, your body may try to compensate for those missing calories by eating more.
2. They can also amp up your sweet tooth.
Sugar substitutes are intensely sweet compared to the real deal. For example, sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. But those artificial, empty calories don’t gratify us the way sugar does, which can backfire: “There is an MRI study that found consuming artificial sweeteners did not stimulate the pleasure center of the brain while consuming sugar did.
3. And they make other foods taste less sweet by comparison.
Because sugar substitutes dramatically up the sweetness ante, they can also dull your perception of other foods. What uses to seem naturally sweet tastes bland after you are used to using sugar substitutes.
4. They can cause you to gain weight.
While there is some research that shows the calorie reduction that goes along with consuming artificial sweeteners may help with weight loss or maintenance,some studies show a connection between sugar substitutes and gaining weight. One study looked at the link between consuming artificially sweetened beverages and long-term weight gain. After the researchers adjusted for diet, exercise changes, and diabetes status, the study found that people who drank artificially sweetened beverages had a 47 percent higher increase in BMI than study participants who didn’t.
5. They mess with your blood sugar.
Research in mice and in humans shows that artificial sweeteners—namely, saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame—significantly affect gut bacteria in the digestive tract and can lead to glucose intolerance, which puts people at risk for type 2 diabetes.
6. They can cause stomach problems.
You’re not imagining things if you’ve ever eaten food or gum flavored with sugar substitutes and felt like your stomach was off afterward. The sugar alcohols, such as Sorbitol and Xylitol, occur naturally in some plants, but can also be manufactured.
Play it safe by cutting back on artificial sweeteners or ditching them entirely. “Because we don’t know the long-term health effects of consuming artificial sweeteners on a regular basis,” says Malik, “I would suggest limiting intake of artificial sweeteners, particularly in children.”
If you’re already hooked on sweeteners, wean yourself off them by using increasingly less each time, and getting used to the taste of things sans-sweetener. Then, opt for moderate amounts of real sugar instead—like the white stuff, honey, or agave. With a little distance from the fake sugars, the sweetness of these will start to satisfy you once again. Or maybe you’ll realize you like your tea plain after all.