Knowledge Update

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

According to an article published in Current Developments in Nutrition, December 2018, low-calorie sweeteners (LCSs), also referred to as artificial sweeteners, non-nutritive sweeteners, non-nutritive artificial sweeteners, high-intensity sweeteners, or sugar substitutes are incorporated into foods, beverages, and self-added tabletop sweeteners as an alternative to sugars or nutritive sweeteners (NSs).

Many scientists and lay people alike have concerns about these LCSs. These concerns stem from both a dissatisfaction with the taste of LCSs and reports that they cause metabolic disruptions (e.g., weight gain, glucose intolerance, and type 2 diabetes).

Compared with NSs, LCSs are associated with lower calorie intake and have been shown to facilitate weight loss in clinical trial settings. Additionally, LCS consumption has been associated with healthier lifestyle choices, such as increased physical activity, greater fruit and vegetable intake, and higher overall Health Eating Index scores. Compared with water consumption, equal or better dietary intake and glycemic response have also been observed for LCS-containing beverages. However, the potential health effects of LCSs remain controversial as various animal, epidemiologic, and prospective studies have reported associations of LCSs with weight gain, cardiometabolic risk factors, and alteration of the gut microbiota.

These fake sweeteners are ubiquitous in foods, beverages, medicines, and even mouthwashes. LCSs provide greater food choices to people looking to cut down calories and improve the palatability of food. However, many of their purported beneficial effects remain invalidated in large scale clinical studies and some recent evidence also questions these previously established benefits. Regardless, some people have bought into the ‘free pass’ mentality that artificial sweeteners exude. Critics believe that, however, artificial sweeteners are anything but a free ride. Rather than accept the fact that we’re eating too much sugar and try to eat less, we look for a magic loophole - an easy way to avoid doing the smart thing. Our earlier experimentation to replace butter with trans-fats and margarine flopped as these replacements turned out to be unsafe for human consumption. Many scientists believe that this may again happen with artificial sweeteners.

The prospect of artificial sweetener market open up with the discovery of saccharin in 1879. Saccharine which is about 300 times sweeter than sucrose was first promoted for people with diabetes. Later, it was marketed to women who wanted to lose weight during World War II. The first diet soda introduced in 1963, was initially sweetened with saccharin. Saccharin was later banned because it created bladder tumors in rats. Some critics suggested that it might also cause cancer in humans. However, researchers later concluded that you would need to drink huge quantities of diet sodas with saccharin daily to get the amount that caused those tumors in rats. Saccharin was eventually acquitted and considered ‘not hazardous’ in America and many other countries. Today the artificial sweetener has replaced saccharin and has become a huge market worth over $ 16 billion. While they appeal to a broad demographic (including people with diabetes), the big sell for artificial sweeteners is for weight loss. Yet interestingly, research shows they can create the opposite effect.

How can zero-calorie sweeteners create weight gain? One explanation is something called caloric dysregulation, where your body thinks it’s getting calories and adjusts accordingly. Other research shows that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine within your brain’s reward center, creating cravings for more sweet stuff.
The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have given a cautious nod to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease. The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. It has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. How the human body and brain respond to these sweeteners is very complex.

Whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe depends on your definition of safe. Studies leading to FDA approval have ruled out cancer risk, for the most part. However, those studies were done using far smaller amounts of diet soda than the 24 ounces a day consumed by many people who drink diet soda. We really don’t know what effect large amounts of these chemicals will have over many years. And there are other health concerns beside cancer. In the multiethnic study of atherosclerosis, daily consumption of diet drinks was associated with a 36% greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk for type 2 diabetes

Dr. Sanjoy Kumar Pal is a lecturer of Biology in Skyline University Nigeria. He has a PhD. in Animal Genetics from Indian Veterinary Research Institute, India.

You can join the conversation on facebook @SkylineUniversityNG and on twitter @SkylineUNigeria