The Truth About Sweeteners

Are non-nutritive sweeteners doing more harm than good? In the battle with the bulge many people stop using the processed sugar and switch to non-nutritive artificial and natural sweeteners for an appropriate alternative. Some people even think that these products are healthier alternatives to natural sugar. Food producers also include numerous forms of artificial sweeteners or industrially manufactured natural sugars in their products to decrease total calorie content, make them “healthier” alternatives to those that include sugar, and also mitigate the variable input costs of natural sugar.

As the global battle on the overweight epidemic rages on these products have become very popular. UK-based research firm Visiongate estimates that the global low-calorie sweetener market will double in its size by 2025. The market is today worth an estimated $11.4bn and is predicted to experience “significant growth in the next decade” as a result of rising demand for diet food, increasing levels of obesity, diabetes and other metabolic issues.

Nevertheless, as yet another human-made food stuff, one that is also processed, is this reliance on sugar substitutes advisable? Do they even help reduce your waistline and overall weight? And then there are the potential health implications.

artificial sweeteners
Lab studies have discovered that aspartame, cyclamate and sucralose cause cancer in rodents and other lab animals.

The most typical concern raised about the use of products such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin, among others, is their potential connection to cancer.

While a direct causal connection hasn’t been established between artificial sweeteners and higher cancer risk in people when used according to recommended guidelines, lab studies have discovered that aspartame, cyclamate and sucralose cause cancer in rodents and other lab animals.

Similarly, research of other sweeteners that the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States has approved haven’t demonstrated clear evidence of a connection with cancer in humans. As such, the FDA, along with a number of other agencies all over the world, including the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada, the National Cancer Institute, the American Medical Affiliation, Multiple Sclerosis Societies, and the Canadian, American and British Diabetes Associations, have all concluded that aspartame is safe when used as advisable.

Testing, however, is ongoing and there are various camps within the broader health and nutrition industries that strongly warn against the overconsumption of these substances on this basis.

apple and measure tape
When we consume sweet-tasting foods that offer no nutritional value or energy the brain isn’t fooled and the hunger impulse isn’t shut off.

When it comes to the role that non-nutritive sweeteners play in weight loss, there’s enough evidence to support the notion that these products are a great tool to reduce total calorie intake by eliminating sugar-derived calories from your diet.

However, recent research has unearthed a potential flaw, one that materially impacts on our ability to reduce overall calorie intake when using these products in our diet.

The human body seems a lot smarter than we care to admit. When we consume sweet-tasting foods that offer no nutritional value or energy the brain isn’t fooled and the hunger impulse isn’t shut off.

The physiological and neurological process that controls this response was presented in a recent study carried out on fruit flies, the results of which appeared in the journal Neuron. According to the lead author on the study, fruit flies and people share about 75% of the same disease-causing genes, and the “molecular machinery” that controls the differentiation between energy-dense sweet food and sweet non-nutritive substances in the fruit fly can also be present in the guts and brains of humans, but on a much larger scale.

The researchers deprived fruit flies of food for several hours and then gave them to choose between a non-nutritive sweetener and real sugar. When the flies licked the real sugar, it activated a group of six neurons that triggered a hormone with receptors in the gut and brain. The hormone fuelled digestion and allowed the fly to lick more of the “nutritious” food.

When the fly, however, consumed the non-nutritive sweetener it never produced the same response in the gut and brain because the zero-calorie sweetener has no nutritional or caloric value. In each case, the flies flew away from the artificial sweetener and chose the regular sugar to restore their energy following the starvation phase of study.

If human brains function in the same way it would help to explain why diet foods don’t satiate us, which is what often leads to overeating because the body’s instinctive natural response is to continue eating food until our energy and nutritional requirements are met.

Fruit flies flew away from the artificial sweetener and chose the regular sugar to restore their energy.

In the same way, eating processed foods that contain industrially manufactured sweeteners, the most common of which is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), often leaves us craving more, and we now have research that explains why.

While we already know that eating carbs and sugar triggers a hormonal response that drives hunger to “stock up” on energy, researchers at the University of Basel recently discovered that fructose also activates the reward system in the brain to a lesser extent than does sugar and that it was less effective than glucose at creating feelings of satiety.

According to the researchers this can cause “excessive consumption accompanied by effects that are a risk to health.” Researchers also stated that “the study may provide the first key findings about the lack of satiety and rewarding effects triggered by fructose.”

These findings, published in the public library of science journal PLOS ONE, add to the growing list of ills attributed to the overconsumption of commercial fructose, which has been associated to various lifestyle disorders and health maladies such as weight problems, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and gout. These findings echo those of researchers at the University of California-San Diego, who tracked the brain activation of volunteers who took small sips of water sweetened with sugar or sucralose.

Using functional MRI scans the research team showed that sugar activated regions of the brain involved in food reward, while sucralose didn’t. According to the researchers, sucralose “couldn’t fully fulfil the desire for natural caloric sweet ingestion.” As such, artificial sweeteners may not be an effective way to manage that sweet tooth.

Artificial Sweetener
In terms of hunger regulation and satiety, artificial sweeteners may be doing more harm than good in our diets.

All of this evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners affect the body’s ability to gauge how many calories are being eaten and that they affect the brain in ways that are different to natural sugar.

While the non-nutritive sweeteners may be a great means to negate sugar-derived calories without sacrificing taste, the final result is that we shave off a few calories from our cups of coffee or tea but overall we end up consuming more calories due to the hormone-regulated hunger response. As such, when considered in the context of hunger regulation and satiety they may be doing more harm than good in our diets.

Artificial sweeteners disrupt the balance of intestinal bacteria so experts advise not to use them.

Of additional concern is the impact that artificial sweeteners may have on the digestive system. An experiment by Israeli researchers, published in the journal Nature, discovered that artificial sweeteners changed the composition of gut bacteria in both rodents and people.

It seems that artificial sweeteners disrupt the balance of intestinal bacteria, which the experts suggest occurs because certain intestinal bacteria respond to artificial sweeteners by secreting substances that cause inflammation and impair the body’s ability to use sugar. And this reduction in the body’s ability to use sugar is problematic, especially for pre-diabetics and people with insulin resistance. Artificial sweeteners as well as plant-based sweeteners, such as stevia, are considered suitable substitutes for people with diabetes because they contain no calories and don’t affect blood sugar.

Artificial Sweetener
The best choice seems to be avoiding added sugar and artificial sweeteners in your diet.

However, the studies carried out by the Israeli researchers also discovered that mice that were given water infused with saccharin, aspartame or sucralose developed glucose intolerance – an inability to process sugar properly. The mice that drank plain water or water sweetened with natural sugar didn’t develop the condition.

In addition, researchers studied the association in seven lean, healthy people who typically avoided artificial sweeteners. When consumed saccharin for five days, four of the seven volunteers developed glucose intolerance, a condition that’s considered a precursor for type-2 diabetes.

Considering this evidence, the choice to replace sugar with artificial sweeteners needs to be based on more than just the reduction in calories they offer. There’s obviously a lot more happening than we previously thought.

However, based on all this facts, the best choice seems to be avoiding added sugar and artificial sweeteners in your diet. If you’re able to reach that point then you don’t need fear any of these health concerns.


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Written by Camille Bennett

Camille Bennett is our nutrition expert interested in fitness diet and doesn’t run out of delicious ideas for healthy and nutritional meals.


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