When it comes to eating healthily, most people struggle with their sugar intake and often turn to zero- or low-calorie sweeteners to help cut down on sugar. Although this seems like a great option, swapping out sugar for an alternative can actually be worse for your health. Before you start using artificial sweeteners with reckless abandon, read on to learn a bit more about how they affect weight loss and health.
Are artificial sweeteners healthy?
The research around the safety of artificial sweeteners is up in the air. “There does not appear to be a concrete answer on whether or not artificial sweeteners are more harmful than sugar,” says Charlotte Martin, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O.W.M. Many sweeteners have links to numerous health conditions such as stroke, dementia, type II diabetes, obesity, and cancer. “However, most of the research is observational and doesn’t prove that the sweeteners themselves are responsible,” Martin notes.
Because the research is so varied and consuming too much sugar is also harmful, it’s best to try to decrease your intake of both artificial sweeteners and added sugar.
Are they good for weight loss?
Again, there does not appear to be an official consensus as to whether consumption of artificial sweeteners leads to weight gain or weight loss—there is research to support both sides. On the one hand, some studies support that replacement of caloric sweeteners with lower- or no-calorie alternatives can lead to modest weight loss in the short term. However, other studies have found the opposite: Consuming artificial sweeteners can eventually lead to weight gain.
“Experts who believe that artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain feel this way because they think consumption of artificial sweeteners confuses the brain into craving more sugar-rich foods,“ Martin says. “Therefore, individuals who regularly consume artificial sweeteners consume more food to curb these cravings.” Some researchers also believe that artificial sweeteners interfere with the balance of bacteria in your gut. This could affect absorption of nutrients and potentially lead to weight gain.
Popular Artificial Sweeteners
Read on to learn about the risks and benefits of some of the most common zero- and low-calorie artificial sweeteners.
Saccharin is the sweetener you find in Sweet’N Low. “It is also found in processed foods and beverages including gum, soft drinks and diet sodas, fruit canned in light syrup, and other foods labeled ‘low-calorie’ or ‘light,’” Martin says. It was once thought that saccharin increased the risk of bladder cancer in rats. Fortunately, the effect was not the same for humans. However, additional research has found that saccharin can negatively affect gut bacteria and lead to weight gain.
Most people will know aspartame by the names NutraSweet or Equal. Find it in items such as diet soda, sugar-free ice cream, gum, candy, and more. Again, research isn’t conclusive, but this particular sweetener doesn’t seem to bode well for our well-being. People have reported that aspartame causes a number of adverse reactions. These include headaches, nausea, anxiety, slurred speech, insomnia, memory loss, and more.
“Unlike other artificial sweeteners like aspartame, this sweetener is stable when heated, which is why it’s found in many baked goods,” Martin says. “It’s also found in tabletop sweeteners, diet beverages, frozen desserts, candies, condiments, gum, etc.”
Like most sweeteners, acesulfame potassium is not without controversy. Some research has found a link between acesulfame potassium and cancer, thyroid damage, and changes in brain function.
Like acesulfame potassium, neotame is heat-stable. So, you can find it in a number of baked goods. It is about 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar. Currently, there aren’t many studies showing negative effects of neotame. The sweetener comes from aspartame, though, so people tend to report the same adverse effects.
Find sucralose in many light dairy products, diet drinks, protein powders and meal replacements, condiments, candies, and chewing gum. This is Splenda. Although the FDA deems it safe, sucralose has links to a variety of harmful biological effects in the body. It can reduce good gut bacteria, release toxins during baking, and alter insulin responses and blood sugar levels.
Unlike the aforementioned sweeteners, erythritol, a sugar alcohol, naturally occurs in small amounts in some fruits and fermented foods. “It’s also added to sweeten many packaged foods such as baked goods, beverages, gum, jellies and jams, and chocolate,” Martin says. It is one of the safest low-calorie sweeteners, but if consumed in high amounts, it does have the potential to cause digestive issues.
“Because stevia extracts originate from a plant, it’s considered natural,” Martin says. “Stevia is found in numerous packaged foods and beverages, such as baked goods, diet beverages, chocolate, candy, protein powders and meal replacements, jams/jellies, condiments, etc.”
Some research shows stevia’s potential to treat endocrine diseases. These include obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. The jury is out about whether it helps weight loss.
There is some evidence connecting zero-calorie sweeteners to negative physical side effects. But it’s still pretty up in the air. As with any processed foods or ingredients, it’s a good idea to ingest artificial sweeteners in moderation.