Artificial sweeteners: good, bad or neutral?

Natural form of stevia (photo by hardworkinghippy via Flickr)

You can’t argue with the fact that substituting an artificial sweetener for regular sugar cuts calories.  The entire argument for using artificial sweeteners is based on that fact.  The assumption being: when people substitute low calorie sweeteners, they end up eating less calories and therefore lose weight, or at least don’t gain weight.

However, let’s look at historical fact: the food supply was inundated with non-caloric sweeteners starting in the late 1960’s with cyclamates and saccharin, moving on to Nutrasweet, sucralose and “all natural” Stevia.  Since that time, obesity has skyrocketed.  Coincidence?  Why would increased consumption of non-caloric sweeteners go hand-in-hand with obesity?

A review this week notes that there’s little research evidence showing that low calorie sweeteners actually do result in weight loss.  While the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association claim that using non-nutritive sweeteners could lead to beneficial effects, if people cut back on added sugars.  Emphasis on could.  Beneficial effects only happen if the choice results in consumption of fewer calories.  If someone uses artificial sweeteners as an excuse to eat more of other foods, there won’t be any calorie reduction.  Unfortunately there is evidence that people use high calorie foods to reward themselves for choosing Health Halo foods.

So at best we can say use of artificial sweeteners has probably had two major effects:

  • People feel better about drinking more soft drinks and coffee beverages, because they’re low calorie.  Unintended consequence: less consumption of beverages with nutrients, like milk or juice.  Less calcium intake means more osteoporosis.  Leading to more demand for osteoporosis drugs.
  • Obesity isn’t even worse than it would be if all soft drinks had been sweetened with sugar for the past 40+ years, and calorie intake had been even higher.  Wow, that makes me feel so much better about fake sweeteners.

But just in case the idea of “artificial” sweeteners still puts you off, “all natural” Stevia should make you feel less guilty about indulging your over-active sweet tooth.  But then, as we know, the word “natural” on food labels is notoriously meaningless.  Stevia is found in leaves, but unless you want to soak leaves in your beverages, the Stevia in your drink was extracted and heavily processed into convenient crystalline form.   Because of all that processing, my colleague, Ellie Krieger RD, considers Stevia to be  just another artificial sweetener.

But are artificial sweeteners unhealthy?  Safety studies only investigate links with cancer.  So unless you eat several pounds per day of some artificial sweetener, for years, you probably aren’t at a significantly increased risk for cancer.  But there are plenty of other medical problems besides cancer, and safety studies don’t consider those, let alone consider whether artificial sweeteners are actually effective in preventing obesity or causing weight loss, which is how they’re promoted.  Real life obesity statistics seem to imply that they aren’t effective.

The worst thing about artificial sweeteners?  They can encourage really bad food choices.  You might want to re-think your artificial sweetener dependence if:

  • You’re using artificial sweeteners to indulge a preference for excessively sweet tastes.  Result: natural levels of sweetness, like fresh fruit, seem bland.  Fruit ends up being unappealing, and vegetables downright objectionable.
  • You’re using artificially sweetened foods and beverages as an excuse for indulging in other high calorie treats.  Result: your calorie is too high for weight loss, or you even gain weight.
  • (Really Bad) You over-indulge in sweetened alcoholic beverages because they’re “low calorie”.
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