Artificial sweeteners

Sweeteners that are not produced by nature are called artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that provide a sweet taste whilst containing way less calories than sugar. Today, the most important artificial sweeteners are aspartame and sucralose.

Strangely, although artificial sweeteners contain almost no calories themselves, they increase weight gain and fat storage. The way this happens is that artificial sweeteners seem to increase our appetite and especially cravings for carbohydrates.

Also, artificial sweeteners increase the risk of various diseases and health issues (see below). It might sound weird to you, but although too much sugar is definitely not good for your health, artificial sweeteners might do you even more harm.

“Although too much sugar is definitely not good for your health,
artificial sweeteners might do even more harm”

Aspartame

Aspartame is a widespread artificial sweetener, 200 times sweeter than sugar and is contained in over 6000 food products. Aspartame is contained in almost all sugar-free soft drinks and even in pharmaceutical drugs and food supplements. You can find aspartame in sugar-free chewing gum, ice-cream, juices, teas, instant coffee, and yogurt. It is often offered as an alternative to sweeten your beverages in tea and coffee shops. The National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey (NHANES) concluded that 44% of adults and 20% of children consume aspartame 3 times daily. Because patent protection has expired, every food industry can manufacture and use aspartame in their products.

“44% of adults and 20% of children consume aspartame 3 times daily”

Sucralose

Sucralose is the world’s most commonly used artificial sweetener (30% of the global market). Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. Unlike aspartame, it is stable when heated and can be used in baked and fried goods.

Sucralose was approved for use in humans by the FDA in 1998, only 20 years ago. Sucralose cannot be used (metabolised) by our body and passes it via stool and urine unchanged. However, it seems that up to 8 % of the sucralose we eat remains in our body and accumulates there. Very similarly to aspartame, sucralose increases the risk of various diseases and health issues (see below). Sucralose has been linked to increased leukaemia risk in rats, but studies in human are lacking.

“Sucralose has been linked to increased leukaemia risk in rats”

So far, it is unknown what exact effects accumulated sucralose exerts in our body. This is not a big surprise, as the substance is only used since 20 years and there are only few studies on long-term effects of sucralose on our health.

Artificial sweeteners in processed foods

Processed foods and convenience foods differ from fresh foods. Tertiary processed foods often have a very long shelf life and contain artificial sweeteners instead of sugar. This especially accounts for all kinds of diet food and diet drinks (“light foods”). Beside artificial sweeteners, convenience foods often contain colorants, emulgators, partially hydrogenated oils, food preservatives and food additives.

Because processed foods and convenience foods are produced by the food industry there are many efforts of claiming the food ingredients and additives used are not harming our health. Furthermore, financing a study that might prove a food ingredient to be bad for health is not in the interest of the industry. That´s why there are very few clinical studies proving the harmfulness of food ingredients and food additives.

Artificial sweeteners in health and disease

Artificial sweeteners in processed foods increase the risk of various diseases and health issues. Importantly, although artificial sweeteners do not contain any energy (unlike sugars), clinical studies suggest that artificial sweeteners can lead to excessive weight gain (obesity), metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular (heart) disease 1,2,3.

This is most likely connected to changes in glucose metabolism and changes in the insulin response upon regular consumption of artificial sweeteners. A very interesting article4 discusses how artificial sweeteners make us want to eat more sweet food.

“Artificial sweeteners make us want to eat more sweet food and make us fat”

To summarise, artificial sweeteners can negatively influence:

  • Glucose metabolism – By changing the insulin response
  • Headaches and migraine – Trigger function
  • Allergies –   Acne, hives on the skin, running nose and sneezing
  • Digestion – Causing gas, bloating, and diarrhoea
  • Gut flora composition – Leading to a damaged or disbalanced gut flora
  • Immune system function – Maybe connected to the change in gut flora composition

Remember, that aspartame is contained in almost all sugar-free soft drinks and that 44% of adults and 20% of children consume aspartame 3 times daily. Although aspartame increases the risk for various diseases and health issues, it has been deemed safe for human consumption by over 100 regulatory agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Aspartame is suspected to promote many different diseases, including multiple sclerosis, premature births, spinal cord malformation, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and autism –as scientist report. Aspartame and sucralose both increase the risk of various diseases and health issues, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease. Artificial sweeteners, gut flora and diabetes

A possible mechanism how aspartame can harm our body is that, once aspartame is heated above 28.5°C, it falls apart and the formaldehyde and formic acid are produced. In humans, this causes methanol intoxication. For sucralose, there hasn´t been any conclusive mechanism proposed yet, which could explain how sucralose harms our body. One reason might be that up to 8 % of the sucralose we eat remains in our body and accumulates there.

Artificial sweeteners, gut flora composition and diabetes

Artificial sweeteners seem to change the composition of the human gut flora, leading to a damaged or disbalanced gut flora. This change in gut flora seems to have strong consequences on the glucose metabolism and insulin response5. In rats, aspartame increases the risk for both metabolic syndrome (36%) and type-2 diabetes (67%)6. The possible mechanism is a change in gut flora composition that affects the glucose metabolism. The same mechanism also seems to apply to sucralose.

“Artificial sweeteners can change the composition of the
human gut flora and lead to type-2 diabetes”

It is well known that the gut flora of people with diabetes significantly differs from non-diabetic individuals7. Inversely, a fascinating study has shown that that some people with type-2 diabetes can be cured by stool transplantation from healthy individuals8.

If you want to learn more about the human gut flora, read more here