Artificial sweeteners are substances that are used in the place of sugar. They can be used then in tablet form in our coffee and sugar so that we don’t need to add the sugar ourselves, or they can be found in ‘health’ drinks and low-fat versions of popular drinks and foods (low fat Coke for instance). Generally they are used in these capacities because of the assumption that sugar is bad for us – creates a sugar spike of sudden energy influx, damages our teeth, makes us more likely to develop diabetes or other conditions and causes weight gain.
However despite the intended health benefits, having sugar replacements such as sweeteners have actually been demonstrated in some cases to be detrimental to our health, and it has been suggested that there may be several side effects to using it (and that depend also on the type of sweetener used). Here we will look at what those are and how to prevent potential health problems.
Ironically there has been some suggestion that sweeteners could in some ways actually exacerbate weight gain rather than just helping weight loss (as they are intended to do). This is the result of several different effects. In some animal studies, artificial sweeteners were shown to cause weight gain as the sweetener causes an insulin response due to the sweet taste, causing the sugar to get stored in the tissue. This then leads to hypoglycemia when the blood sugar level does not increase and that in turn means that you consume more at your next meal to compensate. In other words by confusing the body you cause it to use up the sugar you have in your system by storing it and that then means you need to eat more. In studies rats given sweeteners have been shown to increase their calorie intake and this has shown to lead to increased body weight.
Some sweeteners use a substance called saccharin which is 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar and is used regularly in toothpaste. A concern arose in the 1960s, after a study demonstrated that saccharin could increase the chance of bladder cancer in rats and this lead to its usage being banned in many countries. However further studies found that saccharin caused cancer in rats via a mechanism that was not relevant to humans. Thus in 1991 the ban was lifted by the FDA and warning has been withdrawn.
More concerns exist currently over the ingredient ‘aspartame’ also found in many sweeteners. Aspartame was discovered in 1965 and is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is used in many tabletop products though it is not highly suited to baking. Since its introduction, aspartame has been subject to a lot of controversy as claims have been made against it by various groups that it is linked to cancer and has neurological/psychiatric effects.
However despite these claims, aspartame has been found to be fit for human consumption by over 100 agencies and is one of the most widely tested food ingredients on the market. Despite this, many groups and arguments exist online that make claims against its safety. Happily this is not likely to be more than a conspiracy theory and the claims are no more than speculation and hype.
Lead acetate was a lead based ingredient found in many sweeteners in the past, but was found to cause lead poisoning. As such its use was banned and it is no longer an agent used in any sweeteners.
As such then it can be seen that most claims against sweeteners and sugar substitutes have little scientific basis. In instances in the past where concerns have arisen, the relevant agencies have quickly responded and removed the offending ingredients. Other concerns exist about some misleading marketing surrounding sugar alternatives, such as the use of sucralose in Splenda resulting in the claim that it is ‘made from sugar’. While this may be deceptive it is certainly not harmful. Billions of people eat sugar replacements regularly and this has not prevented our overall health and life expectancies from gradually increasing at a steady rate.
The only side effects of sugar replacements then is that it might reduce the amount of available sugar in the bloodstream and cause us to have an increased appetite during subsequent meals. Being aware of this and regulating your diet appropriately is the best solution.