If the treadmill says it, it has to be true, right? Not so fast. Calorie trackers may not always be as accurate as you’d think.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Going to Kill Me?
Type “artificial sweetener” into any Internet search engine and expect to be inundated with a barrage of false claims. These unsubstantiated side effects include (but are certainly not limited to): anxiety, blindness, obesity, suicidal ideation, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue, personality changes, elevated blood pressure, migraines, hypoglycemia, menstrual abnormalities, and “irreversible brain damage.” Yikes! Still with us?
Numerous studies have investigated the supposed link between consuming fake sugars and suffering from these symptoms, but few have found any direct links . Yet accusations that sugar substitutes are the root cause of countless health problems pervade. But is there actually a cause for concern? And how can we be sure?
Sweet Poison? — The Need-to-Know
Like any flavor enhancer, artificial sweeteners only sneak into snacks, beverages, and other goods after passing a rigorous approval process conducted by the FDA. Based on reviews of its chemical and all existing research into its effects on animals and humans (i.e. whether its toxic, could possibly cause cancer, or could cause the growth of extra limbs), scientists determine how much of a sweetener humans can safely consume on a daily basis — a measure known as acceptable daily intake, or ADI .
The FDA (or other regulatory agencies) typically draws this line 100 times below the dose at which a substance could actually cause harm. So not only are we dealing with a huge safety margin to begin with, we’re talking daily consumption over a lifetime — a fair bit more than the amount we could consume during a one-time synthetic sugar binge.
There are four artificial sweeteners currently on the U.S. Market: aspartame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, and sucralose. And a new sweetener, by the name neotame, just received FDA approval and will soon join the ingredient lists of many low-cal and diet products. Ordered from lowest to highest ADI, here are the most commonly used artificial sweeteners on today’s U.S. market.
Saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin)
Over 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, saccharin is one of the oldest and most widely studied artificial sweeteners. Chemist Constantine Fahlberg first discovered the stuff in 1879 when, after a long day at the lab, everything he touched at dinner suddenly tasted sweeter. Despite heavy criticism, the FDA has approved saccharin on multiple occasions . Warning labels were placed on all saccharin-containing products between 1997 and 2000 while the substance underwent further FDA review in response to concerns that the stuff could cause tumors in humans. As soon as more research indicated the substance was safe, all warnings were removed.
- Where it’s Lurking: Chewing gum, diet soda, jams, salad dressings, candy, canned fruit, baked goods, some vitamins and pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.
- How Much is Too Much? Saccharin’s ADI clocks in at 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day — the equivalent of a 150 pound person eating nine packets of Sweet N’ Low. (Okay, depending on the day, maybe some of us could get to this point…)
Over 100 studies have helped affirm sucralose’s safety since it was created in the late 1960s. In one study, rodents exposed to 16,000 milligrams of sucralose per kilogram of their body weight per day — the equivalent of a human chugging 16,000 cans of diet soda (!?) — showed no significant side effects. Nor did a group of diabetic people who consumed 500 milligrams of the stuff per day .
- Where it’s Lurking: Yogurt, protein bars, frozen deserts, syrups, baked goods, and diet beverages.
- How Much is Too Much? Like saccharin, sucralose’s ADI is 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. So a 165 pound person could (in theory) safely snack on 31 packets of Splenda per day. (Blech.)
Another accidental discovery, this sweetener gained approval in 1983, a couple decades after German Chemist Karl Claus just so happened to lick his chemically doused fingers in a lab one day to discover the compound. (Sound familiar, saccharin?) Rather than standing on its own, acesulfame potassium (200 times sweeter than regular sugar) is usually combined with aspartame or saccharin to enhance the flavors of low-cal treats and mask other artificial sugars’ bitter aftertastes.
- Where it’s Lurking Soft drinks, diet iced teas, tabletop sweeteners, candies, and chewing gum, marinated fish (wait…), rice pudding, ice cream, yogurt, and pickled vegetables (huh?). See also: toothpaste, mouthwash, and some medications.
- How Much is Too Much? On its own, acesulfame potassium has an ADI of 15 milligrams per pound of body weight. That’s about as attainable as downing oh, say, 4,930 Coke Zeros between breakfast and bedtime. (Please don’t consider this a challenge.)
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
Surpassing saccharin as the most extensively researched and widely used artificial sweetener, aspartame was also discovered by a chance finger-lick. (Clearly we’d be on different career paths had we also blatantly ignored Chemistry 101’s lab rules.) Aspartame, which can taste up 220 times sweeter than natural sugar, entered the mainstream market after gaining FDA approval in 1974. It was reapproved in the early 1980’s after additional studies disproved numerous claims over its adverse health effects.
- Where it’s Lurking Aspartame is currently used in over 6,000 American products, ranging from soft drinks and candy to yogurts, deserts, fruit spreads, nutrition shakes, protein bars, cereals, gum, and some pharmaceuticals.
- How Much is Too Much? Aspartame’s ADI stands at 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. To exceed this amount, a 150 pound adult would need to down more than twenty 12-ounce cans of diet soda. (Even the most enthusiastic aspartame consumers across the U.S., one study found, only down about the amount equal to three diet sodas per day for our 150 pound friend.)
A close cousin of aspartame, this flavor enhancer clocks in with a sweetness between 7,000 and 13,000 times that of regular sugar. Yeesh! Neotame withstands higher temperatures and has a longer shelf-life than aspartame, and it’s been proven safe in a number of clinical trials conducted in mice, rats, dogs, and rabbits. NutraSweet holds a patent for the stuff, and it’s been gaining steam in India under the brand name Sweetos.
- Where it’s Lurking Though neotame received FDA approval in 2002, it hasn’t yet been used in U.S. products. So stay tuned…
- How Much is Too Much? Given that neotame is between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than regular sugar, it’s safe to say that no one is expected to need — or want? — to consume too much of it. Neotame’s ADI has been set just under 2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, but since it’s not yet on any ingredient lists, we can’t give you some outlandish equivalent. (Sigh.)
Say What, Science? — The Answer/Debate
By and large, the major claim against artificial sweeteners — that they cause cancer — has been disproven. Several studies have found higher incidences of bladder cancer in rats whose chow was pumped full of aspartame  . Most studies only link an increased risk of cancer to levels way above aspartame’s ADI and well over the typical amount of aspartame an average American is thought to consume — though some evidence suggests consumption close to what's currently deemed "acceptable" for humans could increase the risk of cancer over the course of a full lifespan . Plus, humans don’t as readily form the potentially cancer-causing calcium crystals that rats do after breaking down artificial sweeteners (and other substances)  . (As it turns out, overloading on vitamin C is just as likely as swallowing too much saccharin to trigger bladder cancer in our rodent friends .)
The second biggest cause of sugar substitute debate? Whether or not they can cause weight gain. Brain imaging studies reveal sucralose does not elicit the same pleasure/reward pathways in the brain that real sugar does. There's also evidence that sucralose dials down activation in other neural response pathways involved in taste .
Since the fake stuff feels far sweeter to our tongues than the the real stuff, we may end up scarfing down more of the latter in an ever elusive search for the taste only fake sugar can offer. Though alone fake sugars may not prompt glucose-spikes or come with a high-load of calories, regular consumption of them can, by altering our taste perceptions and cravings, prompt us to consume more of the real stuff that causes these health problems in the first place .
The primary concern, then, doesn't seem to be that regularly consuming artificially sweetened products leads to cancer. (Keep in mind that to get to this point we'd probably have to consume 4,000+ cans of diet soda a day.) Rather, artificial sweeteners may dull our responses to normal sugar, encouraging us to eat more actual sugar when we find ourselves in front of it. The end result? Artificially sweetened products may end up leading us to the same health consequences they were supposed to help us avoid .
And what about claims that aspartame causes dizziness, nausea, fatigue, headaches, and mood problems? That could just be a consequence of crash dieting, says M.D. Peter Sedesse. “If people who drink about 50 percent of their overall calories from regular soda suddenly switch to diet coke, it’s the same as you or I suddenly eating almost nothing,” Sedesse explains, via e-mail. “All of those issues — including confusion, poor memory, fatigue, irritability, mood swings, sluggishness, and depression — happen when the brain and body don’t get enough calories to function normally.”
Though all five currently produced artificial sweeteners have met (and surpassed) the FDA’s current safety standards for food additives, there’s no definitive guarantee that these products will never be found to pose health risks — especially over a full lifetime. The formerly-legal sweetener cyclamate, for instance, was banned from incorporation into foods, beverages, and sweetening tablets after a study found it to be toxic to some animals . Though, word to the scientifically wise: Subsequent studies have not replicated the tumor-cyclamate link   .
But, like most things, artificial sweeteners come with legit cons and pros.
On the plus side, they can help keep caloric intake under control, reduce insulin spikes and post-sugar binge crashes, make medicines and oral hygiene products less bitter, and boost yumminess in some food and beverages . On the other (not so plus) side, they don’t provide any vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, or healthy fats. It’s no news that weight control and overall health maintenance involve more than just cutting calories. Optimal wellbeing means incorporating a range of non-processed and proven-to-be-good-for-you options into your daily diet—think: veggies, fruits, lean protein, fish oils, and whole grains. Not to mention adopting a healthier lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and adequate sleep.
In turn, while the vast majority of us may not be adversely affected by sugar substitutes, some may have their own issues. One genetic disorder, for instance, renders sufferers unable to metabolize one of aspartame’s metabolic byproducts, the essential amino acid phenylalaline. Many folks may also have specific allergies to artificial sweeteners, much like they would to a variety of foods or chemicals, so be your own sleuth. If you get hives after drinking diet soda on multiple occasions, try taking a break from the Pepsi Maxx and speaking with a doctor.
No one’s recommending a diet of Equal packets and Powerade Zero — just because non-nutritive sugar substitutes aren’t so bad for you after all doesn’t mean they’re good for you. But until sufficient evidence crops up that any of the above sweeteners do pose a significant risk to human health, there’s no scientifically sound reason to take them off the market — or to completely eliminate them from your diet.
Do you use artificial sweeteners? If so, how much? What's your stance on their safety? Join the conversation in the comments below!
Photo by Mykalee McGowan
Originally published on July 19, 2012. Updated July 2013.
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Comments Leave a comment
Thanks for writing an intelligent article on artificial sweeteners. It seems like a long time since I've seen someone just say, "wait a minute, what is the truth about this". How much do I drink?
I love my Diet soda. I have one BIG Gulp a day(about 32 ounces) and I may also have a Zero Water a day which I believe also has artificial sweeteners. I also drink a lot of water in a day - about 64 ounces. I can't tell you how passionate people are about telling me how bad these drinks are for me. I have felt guilty with every soda purchased and live in fear that every abdominal ache will prove I have bladder cancer. I keep waiting for the shoe to fall. Thanks for shaking some sense into me! I will continue to enjoy my diet soda, chalk up the aches and pains to getting older, try and eat a healthy diet and juat enjoy life! Thanks!
It's also worth remembering that the "alternative," - real sugar - is not without negative health consequences. So which is the lesser of two evils? I'll keep using artificial sweeteners - they are safe & calorie-free!
It's also worth remembering that the "alternative," - real sugar - is not without negative health consequences. So which is the lesser of two evils? I'll keep using artificial sweeteners - they are safe & calorie-free! www.facebook.com/funfearlessfitness
Meh I have to say that this article really does make artificial sweeteners look the beez knees, and I'm not even sure if bees have knees.
All this talk of artificial sweeteners giving people cancer to me sounds like one of those rumours that got passed about a lot. I personally don't think they do.
I do however believe that they will cause weight gain. But only if you have food within you already or you're eating at the time of consuming sweeteners or shortly after. I've tested this on myself a bunch of times. Not scientifically, as in measuring blood sugar after drinking diet soda, which I'm guessing would be below normal levels if you haven't consumed any food within a while. The Sweetener would cause insulin release, which is why you can gain weight. I've seen tons reports of people on a continous weight loss completely stop when they drink diet soda, including myself.
I think this article is totally wrong to be here, the health section of Greatist. If anyone can lose weight and drink diet sodas all day, I will be completely amazed. Sweeteners may not directly give you all this cancer and so forth, but they definitely will make you store tons of that food you're consuming. Which will inevitably cause weight gain, and I don't think I need to tell anyone what the consequences of being overweight can cause.
Saying this, the sugar option will do exactly the same thing. LOL
Also, just another point. People who are generally really, really fit and have lots of muscle and below 10% body fat can sure have diet drinks, sports drinks, and so forth and will not be affected by this type of stuff in the same way the average person will be. Especially after some big ass dude has just been weight lifting, all they want to do is SPIKE insulin.
Which when the average person sees they're all like "Look at that dude, he's ripped to hell and has big ass muscles, diet soda hasn't stopped him"... Wrong!
Great article, but what about Stevia?
This article is completely misleading...artificial sweeteners are detrimental to your health and the research proves it. the cause cancer, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory processes and your body sees it as sugar and it causes obesity. Shame on you and greatest.com for misleading people on nutrition and wellness. Looks like you've drank the Big Food Kool-Aid....
Hi there. We reported on the current research which has yet to prove a definitive link between artificial sweeteners and the long list of ills they've been suggested to cause. Please see the citations throughout the piece. Studies have linked some sweeteners to the formation of bladder cancer in rats, but experts believe this is primarily due to the crystals rats form in their bladders after digesting the chemicals in artificial sweeteners. Humans do not produce the same bladder crystals as rats. Plus, the amount of artificial sweeteners given to these rats was well beyond the acceptable upper limit for humans. Nowhere in the article are we recommending readers up their intake of artificial sweeteners. We're always happy to update our articles though, should new information crop up. So by all means, please let us know if we missed any studies that link cancer, diabetes, and other diseases to moderate consumptions of artificial sweeteners. Thanks for your feedback!
I use Stevia, I know it is safe.
In response to this article: I'm a Board Certified Holistic Health Counselor. Those research paper that were cited are not much different from the research papers Big Pharma uses. They are paid for by Big Food. They are biased. Big Food suppresses the research that shows how very harmful artifical sweeteners are because they make too much money off them. My real issue with this article is that had you done the research you could have also found papers that PROVE the links between artificial sweeteners and cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease etc. You could have presented BOTH sides.
This is a much needed article, because it underscores the controversy about what really constitutes a harmful product... or another way of putting it might be: "How much garbage in your food can be tolerated before you get sick?"
I cringe when I see people tearing open one of those little packets of poison and sprinkle it on their coffee, tea, oatmeal... whatever.
Neotame is yet another lesser known but pernicious sweetener. "Neotame is Aspartame on steroids" http://bit.ly/TA81Vs.
Both Neotame and Aspartame are known to rapidly stimulate the release of insulin and leptin — two hormones that are intricately involved with satiety and fat storage.
Insulin and leptin are also the primary hormones that regulate your metabolism. So although you’re not ingesting calories in the form of sugar, Aspartame and Neotame can still raise your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin and leptin levels, in turn, are two of the driving forces behind obesity, diabetes, and a number of our current chronic disease epidemics.
Neotame and Apartame (and the brands that contain it, NutraSweet, Equal and Sugar Twin) are poison http://bit.ly/OkDA47.
Find a substitute, such as Xylitol or Stevia http://bit.ly/NqjQjY.
This article is very misleading. Artificial sugars are just that, ARTIFICIAL. People would be better off if they stuck to whole foods and just limited the sweets. For running a health and fitness website, the "greatist" has just lost all credibility in my mind and I am unsubscribing to the blog ASAP.
There is just something about eating fake sugar that was made in a laboratory that doesn't seem right to me. Anybody trying to lose weight would be better off just cutting out the sweets completely and sticking to a diet of real food with ingredients that you can pronounce.
Plus, I don't really trust the FDA. They approve all sorts of food that is horrible for you. Just because something is FDA approved doesn't mean its good for you. Read this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-f-jacobson/food-additives-_b_16540...
As this article makes clear, the vast body of science proves that low- and no-calorie sweeteners are safe for consumption, and an effective weight management tool. That’s precisely why regulatory agencies around the globe, as well as leading health organizations (i.e., the American Diabetes Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, etc.) approve these sweeteners.
-Maureen Beach, American Beverage Association
I'm very disappointed that this article made the cut. It is stating that ingesting these chemicals on a regular basis in moderate quantities will do no harm to our bodies according to the, ever so straight laced, FDA. This is the same agency has approved beaver anal poop (delicious as an appetizer), coal tar (for coloring of course), bacteriophage virus (which doesn't have to be listed), and all of the unnecessary coloring which many countries have banned for a reason.
I also didn't see where it talks about aspartame being an excitotoxin. Sounds bad? It is. Why wasn't there another side to this article? So we won't grow a third arm as the writer jokingly put it but it can't be all good either. Both sides should be stated with research paid by third parties and then let the readers make their own decision. I thought Greatist was here to educate us on our choices but this is a biased article. Plus, after reading the works cited I further believe the writer either chose to not look into further research or only wanted to support one side of this laboratory controversy.
As a mom I am still choosing to limit my children's intake of these chemicals as much as I possibly can.
I'm a dietitian, and while I preach anything in moderation, I think it is interesting that the caption included with this article in my e-mail inbox stated "...it may be best to avoid processed sugars (or sugar substitutes) and sweeten food with natural ingredients such as honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup."
This statement implies that these sweeteners are somehow superior to regular old sugar (they're not). They're all sugar, all have calories, and all will impact blood sugar. It seems to be an irresponsible statement which is NOT backed up by research.
Well written endorsement on behalf of the chemical companies. Bottom line all of the aforementioned chemicals are chemicals. Chemicals made by men have little to no room in the human body and shouldn't be there.
I've been a strength coach and fitness expert for 10 years and in my experience as a professional most people who use products containing these chemicals live unhealthy lifestyles and who's diets are already laden with chemicals and additives as it is. Now alone one chemical may be inert and harmless, take aluminum foil for example. Now crumple thst aluminum foil up and through it in a batch of industrial toilet bowl cleaner, give it a shake and watch it explode! Get the picture?
Who knows truly what kind of interaction these chemicals have with others in the blood stream. And personally I'm inclined to think most studies sited here have been commissioned on the direct behalf of the chemical companies. This last comment is admittedly an assumption, but not an unreasonable one considering the lobbying efforts of these very powerful companies.
On a personal note. I used to drink allot of coffee and used Splenda for several years. Two packs daily for years. All of a sudden I started getting massive headaches. I still have a coffee issue, but after cutting out Splenda as an Experiement the headaches quickly dissipated. Coincidence? I'm not so sure.
Again, botom line, a chemical is a chemical and should have no place in ones diet.
As mentioned by another poster, Aspartame is an excitotoxin.
Here's what this means:
Here's a study from back in 1994:
Excitotoxins in foods by Olney JW, Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri 63110.
Evidence is reviewed pertaining to excitatory neurotoxins (excitotoxins) encountered in human food supply. The most frequently encountered food excitotoxin is glutamate (Glu) which is commercially added to many foods despite evidence that it can freely penetrate certain brain regions and rapidly destroy neurons by hyperactivating the NMDA subtype of Glu receptor. Hypersensitivity of NMDA receptors during development makes the immature nervous system especially sensitive to Glu excitotoxicity. On the other hand, elderly consumers are particularly sensitive to domoic acid, a powerful excitotoxic Glu analog that activates both NMDA and non-NMDA receptors. Thus, the human food supply is a source of excitotoxins that can damage the brain by one type of mechanism to which immature consumers are hypervulnerable, or by other mechanisms to which adult and elderly consumers are peculiarly sensitive.
To suggest that most Americans who consume diet soda drink 36 oz or less a day, seems vastly understated to me. Consumers have been led to believe that these 1 and 0 calorie drinks are safe and they drink them by the 2 liter. Perhaps that's the average consumption but I doubt it's the mean. Do you have a link to that statistic?
I find it disingenuous to state that the symptoms reported by consumers of artificial sweeteners are caused by the act of switching from sugar to chemicals. If that is true, the symptoms would be temporary in nature. For example, it should be similar to what a heavy consumer of caffeine might experience when they go caffeine free for a week. The severe symptoms dissipate after 48-72 hours. They don't last for the entire duration of caffeine removal.
Nor is it realistic to compare it to crash dieting in that the consumers are not getting “enough calories to function normally”. Where is the evidence that these consumers fail to get adequate calories?
I'm really surprised no one has mentioned this yet.
I took a look at the works cited list and found items 6 and 7 intriguing. I didn't even have to click the link to read further; the titles are "Aspartame administered in feed, beginning prenatally through life span, induces cancers of the liver and lung in male Swiss mice." and "Life-span exposure to low doses of aspartame beginning during prenatal life increases cancer effects in rats."
First, the Greatist article only mentions bladder cancer in rats and insists that it wouldn't be the same in humans because of the rats' tendency to form crystals. What about this study that mentions liver and lung cancer, and in the title to boot?
The Greatist article also mentions that the incidences of cancer involved rats that were given extremely high doses of aspartame. Yet the title of the other study specifically says "low doses." If you read the conclusion of the study, it says, "The results of this carcinogenicity bioassay confirm and reinforce the first experimental demonstration of APM's multipotential carcinogenicity at a dose level close to the acceptable daily intake for humans." Close to what is acceptable to humans is pretty significant.
For an article claiming to present all of the evidence, I'm shocked that you blatantly ignored information from your own works cited list. It's extremely misleading and a shame for a site that I generally hold in high regard given the quality of the rest of the articles you publish. I hope you'll consider editing to incorporate this important information.