Home » Are artificial sweeteners good for you?

Are artificial sweeteners good for you?

are artificial sweeteners healthy

We’re a society focused on calories. We constantly see advertisements for low-calorie foods and calories are also provided on restaurant menus. And even some researchers want candies labelled with how much time it will take you to walk off those extra calories. At a young age we learn calories can help us lose or gain weight. Even if we don’t quite understand exactly what a calorie is, most of us think they’re something to avoid, or limit. So much so we want to eat our favourite foods without getting the calories. Enter artificial sweeteners.

Also known as low-calorie sweeteners, artificial sweeteners are chemically created to sweeten food without the sugar, or the calories. And why not? Regularly eating refined sugar can lead to weight gain and increase your chances for a host of diseases from diabetes to cancer.

We all crave something sweet at one time or another. We can’t help it. Our body is designed to crave sugar. It’s one of the main tastes our tongue can distinguish. In times when food was scarce, tasting sweetness was a way for us to identify foods (such as fruits) that were full of energy. Now with artificial sweeteners, you can literally have your cake, and eat it too. Minus the calories. But these sweeteners may not be as sweet and innocent as we’re led to believe.

the skinny on artificial sweeteners

The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners

While the first artificial sweetener, saccharin, has been around for over a century, it wasn’t really until the 1980s that widespread use took off. It’s probably not coincidence this was when rates of obesity were skyrocketing and weight loss programs were popping up.

There are seven common sweeteners approved for use in Canada and the US: advantame, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, erythritol, neotame, saccharin, stevia and sucralose. Cyclamate is another one used in Europe but banned in Canada and the US.

You’ll find artificial sweeteners in your favourite diet pop, calorie-reduced yoghurt and other foods, and also as table sweeteners. These foods have been cautiously recommended for people with diabetes, as they can help lower sugar intake while maintaining the sweet taste in one’s diet. However, daily limits have been set for each one ranging from 0.3 to 50 mg/kg of body weight per day. So these sweeteners are only recommended in small amounts.

If you eat artificial sweeteners, you’re not alone. Consumption has been on the rise for many years. Now more than 40% of adults consume artificial sweeteners. Most of this comes from diet or zero-calorie drinks. What may be as concerning is the 200% increase in consumption in US children since 1999. This is most likely due to the increased presence of low-calorie and processed foods (you don’t get artificial sweeteners in natural foods) in our diets.

artificial sweeteners and weight loss

In the Name of Weight Loss

Many people opt for these products in the pursuit of weight loss. This makes sense. You can still have foods you like without the calories and lose weight at the same time. But that may not be what really happens.

Consuming artificial sweeteners may not lead to weight loss and some studies have found they lead to weight gain. One reason could be is that we often use food as a reward. In some cases, you may be tempted to take that extra helping of food or bite of cake since you had diet drinks all day. It’s something many of us do from time to time. However, it’s more than that.

Artificial sweeteners are actually sweeter than, well, you guessed it, sugar. Aspartame, at the low end, is 200 times sweeter than sugar, while neotame is more than 7000 times sweeter. And since our tastes can change based on the foods we eat, eating artificial sweeteners may lead one to have a super-sweet tooth. This could lead to even more cravings for sweet foods, leading to eating more calories. However, a short-term study found no effect on preferences for sweet foods people using these sweeteners.

There have also been studies, which link artificially sweetened drinks to an increased chance of getting diabetes, dementia, stroke and early death in women. The most recent study to raise alarms found higher blood levels of erythritol were associated with greater chances of heart disease. In addition, erythritol may increase thrombosis, a common process involved in heart attacks.

It’s also believed artificial sweeteners may damage the good bacteria in your gut as they do in mice. In doing so, artificial sweeteners may alter how sugar is metabolised in your body and increase your chances of getting diabetes.

weighing the evidence

Weighing the Evidence

The word of caution for all of these studies is they can’t tell if the sweeteners themselves are causing the disease or weight gain. It could be that people who are overweight turn to diet sodas and foods to lose weight, and these people could have underlying health issues. And of course, we don’t have great lab studies in humans like we do in rats and mice.

More robust studies haven’t found the consumption of foods or drinks with artificial sweeteners to lead to weight gain. But they haven’t been conclusive on resulting in weight loss either. The problem with most studies is they’re usually no longer than six months. And anyone who has tried losing weight, will know it’s easier at the start but much harder keeping it off. Importantly, these studies are nowhere near long enough to tell us how sweeteners effect our health.

Further complicating things is the fact that not all sweeteners are created equal. They’re all different in their molecular composition and likely how they’re processed in our bodies. This may explain why people in one study who drank saccharin added to drinks over 12 weeks gained weight while sucralose led to weight loss.

While the jury‘s still out on the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners, it’s also not conclusive they’re harmless. Or whether they can be part of effective weight loss programs. Some have also said they should not be considered part of a healthy diet.

Whether artificial sweeteners are right for you may depend on your goals and how you incorporate them into your diet. As a replacement for regular sodas, the consumption of diet sodas may be helpful. But keep in mind that artificial sweeteners are used in processed foods which themselves may be of questionable nutritional value. In the long term, turning to natural, less processed foods and drinking water may be your best option.

If you like this post, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog at the bottom of the page.

Enjoy listening to podcasts? Check out my show How to Health. A podcast about you and your health.

3 responses to “Are artificial sweeteners good for you?”

  1. Very interesting post, Dr Lear, as usual. I noticed I was commenting as Metakarpo as name! Well, my name is ANGEL J. CUENCA, and I get in touch with you to use one image, NEAT, in my Online Course about Health and Physical Activity.
    One question about this post: you include Stevia as Artificial Sweeteners. I use Stevia in my breakfast for my coffe&milk every day. Some days, when I eat yoghourts natural without sugar or sweeteners.

    I use pure powdered Stevia extract that I buy in some Herbalists (there aren’t many where they have it), quite expensive and should be used in very small quantities. I don’t use it to lose weight or anything like that. I don’t like sweet things, and I don’t have a sweet tooth, and I try to take, within my means, the most natural products I can, especially vegetables and fruits. (I am not Vegetarian or Vegan).

    I do not use Stevia Sweeteners that are in any supermarket because they are composed of little Stevia and many other chemical components, such as artificial sweeteners: aspartame, E-xxxx, and others.

    I understand, perhaps I am wrong, that I am using a Natural Product such as Stevia. Reading the components and comparing them with sweeteners with a Stevia content of less than 10%, I think I am taking a different product, a natural product.
    Am I wrong?

    1. Hi Angel
      It sounds like how you’re using stevia (in place of sugar and not as a blended sweetener) is a good strategy. There isn’t a lot of research specifically on stevia and most of the articles I’ve read use data from other sweeteners and extrapolate that to stevia. But given these are different chemical compounds, what happens with one sweetener may not apply to others.

      There are conflicting studies on whether stevia has a negative or neutral effect on gut bacteria and I would say the evidence isn’t conclusive.

      And as you point out, the stevia your using is different from what is usually studied. Most studies seem to use stevia that is blended and processed with other compounds.

      It’s hard to say whether there are downsides to how you’re using stevia. In small amounts like you are using and in place of sugar, I would think it’s a healthy choice.

      Thanks, Scott


    Thanks. It’s a pleasure to receive your answer to my question. My best wishes.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: