The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin (Sweet n Low), acesulfame (Sweet One), aspartame (Equal and Nutrasweet), neotame, and sucralose (Splenda).
From a logical standpoint, artificial sweeteners sound great. They don’t contribute calories to the diet and they don’t impact blood sugar levels making them seem like a good choice for those with pre-diabetes or diabetes. But, what does the research show about their long term use?
Artificial sweeteners and diabetes
Many people think that using artificial sweeteners will help them cut calories and lose weight. But what does the science have to say?
Consumption of artificial sweeteners may stop us from associating sweetness with caloric intake, causing an increase in overall caloric intake. In fact, studies are starting to show that those who eat artificial sweeteners tend to eat more calories daily than their peers who do not. In this particular study, intake of water and regular sugar with a meal lit up parts of the brain that are linked to cognitive control, whereas artificial sweetener intake did not. The group that consumed artificial sweeteners saw increased activity in the part of the brain that inhibits reward. This means that we don’t get the “reward” that comes with regular sugar intake possibly explaining why we eat more in search of it.
One study found that daily intake of diet soda was associated with a 36% greater relative risk of metabolic syndrome (specifically high waist circumference and impaired fasting glucose) and a 67% greater relative risk of Type 2 Diabetes compared to their counterparts that did not consume diet drinks. This is a vastly different outcome than artificial sweeteners promise! The evidence is definitely starting to suggest that the benefits of artificial sweeteners may not outweigh the downsides.
Artificial sweeteners and the brain
One theory of explanation behind these results is that artificial sweeteners seem to increase cravings and the desire for the high sugar, calorie dense foods. Artificial sweeteners do not trigger the release of dopamine (our reward neurotransmitter in the brain) that same way that regular sugar intake does, possibly promoting sugar seeking behavior in those who consume artificial sweeteners. Basically, the brain is not to be “tricked” by these artificial sweeteners as they provide the sweetness of sugar but none of the calories. Additionally, they may be very addictive. A study performed in rats found that rats chose artificial sweeteners over cocaine when given a choice.
Artificial sweeteners may change the way we taste food as well. Because they are sweeter and more concentrated than the sugar we find in fruits, honey, maple syrup, table sugar and even high fructose corn syrup, we may eventually shun naturally sweetened foods and find foods that aren’t sweet (like veggies!) are not to our liking. For example, saccharin is 300 times sweeter than table sugar.
Artificial sweeteners and the microbiome
Artificial sweeteners have also been found to impact the microbiome. The microbiome is the collection of the bacteria that resides in our large intestine. They have many roles in the body including training our immune system to recognize friend from foe, keeping inflammation at bay and the cells in your colon healthy, and even making some important vitamins like B12. They also ferment dietary prebiotic fiber into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that impact brain function and serve as fuel for our cells. Emerging research even suggests that the makeup of the microbiome may inform how efficient our metabolisms are and whether are gain or lose weight.
One study performed in mice found that artificial sweeteners induced glucose intolerance by altering the microbiome. Glucose intolerance simply means that your tissues become less likely to take it up from the bloodstream and use it for energy. This is usually linked to insulin resistance, which is the precursor to diabetes.
What’s a better choice?
So, what’s a savvy consumer to choose? Well, there might be a middle ground.
More newly researched are the non-nutritive sweeteners stevia and monk fruit which do not fall into the artificial sweetener category. They have a zero glycemic index but are not considered to be artificial since they are plant based. So far, they are considered by many to be better alternatives to both artificial sweeteners and regular sugar. They are a good choice for those with diabetes or blood sugar regulation issues who want to stay away from the artificial sweeteners.
If you want to try using monk fruit sweetener, you can swap it out in a 1:1 ratio for white table sugar in recipes, or try one our tried and true recipes using monkfruit like our chewy chocolate chip cookies!