Not So Sweet
Posted On Sep 29, 2016
Do artificial sweeteners promise skinny but actually make you fat? Recent science suggests that these modern-day waist whittlers are actually doing just the opposite.
By Scott Olson
At first glance, artificial sweeteners make perfect sense. You get your cake but you dodge the calories.
Food scientists who concocted calorie-free sweeteners had just this notion in mind: provide sweetness minus the calories. It seemed that artificial sweeteners were the perfect answer to our collective sweet tooth and ever-growing waistlines. We could all rejoice as we downed as much diet soda and sugar-free cookies as we desired.
But there was a nagging question in the back of our minds every time we tipped that sugar-free soda toward our mouths: Is this stuff really good for me?
Sure, doctors and health organizations such as the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association suggest that we use artificial sweeteners to avoid calories. From that perspective, artificial sweeteners are the clear choice, but are calories the whole story?
Sack the Saccharine?
Recently, health scientists have been asking the question: Does getting our sugar fix from artificial sweeteners translate into better health?
Susan E. Swithers, Ph.D., a professor of psychological sciences and a behavioral neuroscientist at Purdue University wrote a paper on artificial sweeteners that appeared in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism. She suggests, “It is not uncommon for people to be given messages that artificially-sweetened products are healthy, will help them lose weight, or will help prevent weight gain. The data to support those claims are not very strong, and although it seems like common sense that diet sodas would not be as problematic as regular sodas, common sense is not always right.”
Early clinical studies did show people gain less weight when they use artificially sweetened beverages. Recently, a few large population studies have thrown cold water on those early results. These large studies linked frequent consumption of artificial sugars to overall poorer health—including weight gain.
Real sugar has long been linked to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. But here is the strange thing: Studies now point to the startling notion that artificial sweeteners have exactly the same health risks.
The Sweet Spot?
Theories abound about why artificial sweeteners are no better than white sugar at supporting health. Maybe it is enough to say that we simply can’t trick our bodies. Researchers, though, have started to explore the mystery.
Using brain scans as people consume artificial sweeteners (sucralose), scientists noticed that the fake sugars failed to activate brain regions involved in food reward. We eat artificial sweeteners but we don’t feel satisfied. This, in turn, leads to overeating other foods. Studies in animals have suggested that artificial sweeteners dampen our response to the taste of sweet things, which also causes overeating.
Yanina Pepino, Ph.D., an assistant professor of internal medicine and nutritional science at the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, investigated how artificial sweeteners alter our blood sugar and insulin response.
“When study participants drank sucralose, their blood sugar peaked at a higher level than when they drank only water before consuming glucose,” Dr. Pepino suggests. “Insulin levels also rose about 20 percent higher.”
Changes in insulin and blood sugar can have a big impact on our health and may be responsible for the poor health of those who choose artificial sweeteners, but there may be more.
Artificial sweeteners also can change our gut bacteria, which can alter our blood sugar, too, according to Eran Elinav, M.D., of the immunology department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and the principle investigator of the study appearing in the journal Nature.
“Our relationship with our own individual mix of gut bacteria is a huge factor in determining how the food we eat affects us,” he writes of his findings in the study. “Especially intriguing is the link between use of artificial sweeteners—through the bacteria in our guts—to a tendency to develop the very disorders they were designed to prevent. This calls for reassessment of today’s massive, unsupervised consumption of these substances.”
More Sweet Gone Sour
The reason you would reach for an artificial sweetener is that you are looking for a healthy alternative to sugar. What studies are showing is that artificial sweeteners are not the benign chemicals we thought they were. In fact, they are the opposite.
Aspartame breaks down into methanol. If that’s not bad enough, it also is then converted into formaldehyde in our bodies. Scientists have calculated the formaldehyde exposure to be around 61 milligrams for every liter of aspartame ingested, which is many times over what would be considered a safe level. Our brains are especially sensitive to this exposure: When mice are fed methanol, they develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. This has led many health scientists to speculate that artificial sweeteners may be behind the rise in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
There is also the looming cancer question. In the 1970s, saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in laboratory animals, but only in very high doses. Aspartame has been suspected of being associated with brain cancer and, more recently, with lymphomas and leukemia. None of these links are proven, but they may be yet another reason to avoid these chemical sweeteners. Still, saccharin and aspartame remain approved by the FDA.
What to Use?
If all artificial sweeteners are out, what can you do? You can try a natural sweetener such as Stevia or xylitol.
Stevia is an herb extract that is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Studies have shown Stevia actually helps control blood sugar. Stevia has an aftertaste that some people don’t like and it is difficult to use in baking because you only use a small amount (which changes the ingredient’s measurement). It also doesn’t brown or caramelize like sugar does.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that doesn’t appear to change blood sugar and seems to reduce cavities. Xylitol tastes great, but it can lead to stomach upset in some people.
What you may find is that going cold turkey is your best option. While it can be difficult, your cravings tend to fade over time and the thing you thought you couldn’t do without may well become a distant memory.