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Health authorities and the medical community say that they are okay and won’t adversely affect our health. On the other hand, we read news reports that warn us about artificial sweeteners’ harmful effects in the light of recent scientific studies.
So what’s the real deal regarding artificial sweeteners? Are they harmful and should we avoid them altogether?
Today, we’ll take a look at 4 common artificial sweeteners, examine the scientific evidence behind the controversy and decide if the supposedly harmful effects are valid.
But before we do that, let’s see what artificial sweeteners are.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners and How do They Work?
Artificial sweeteners are substitutes for sugar, chemicals designed to replace sugar and makes food and beverages taste sweet. They are extremely low in calories and many times sweeter than sugar; this makes them very attractive to folks who want to lose weight but don’t want to give up eating sweet treats like desserts etc.
They work the same way as sugar and other junk food by enabling the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that allows us to have intense pleasurable feelings whenever we eat them. As I mentioned in an earlier article on junk food addiction, sugar, and food that contains huge amounts of sugar enable massive dopamine releases, much more than healthy whole foods. 1
On the other hand, eating healthy whole foods allows a much less reduced amount of dopamine, so we get less pleasure or satisfaction in eating such foods compared to junk food.
What this means is that when we eat food and drink beverages that are sweetened with artificial sweeteners, our brains also release huge amounts of dopamine that gives us intense pleasurable feelings, just like sugar and sugar-laden foods and beverages.
The 4 Most Common Artificial Sweeteners
- Aspartame – The most common brands are Equal and NutraSweet; other brands include NatraTaste Blue and Sugar Twin. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Sucralose – It’s marketed under the brands Splenda and NuSweet and is 600 times sweeter than sugar.
- Saccharin – The brands include Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet’N Low, and Necta Sweet; it is 200 – 700 times sweeter than sugar.
- Acesulfame Potassium – It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar and marketed under the brands Sunett and Sweet One.
Let’s examine each of these artificial sweeteners in detail.
This is probably the most common artificial sweetener around. Aspartame was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration about 35 years ago, and today it is used in over 6,000 consumer food and beverages, and more than 500 prescription medications including those sold over the counter.
A report in January 2014 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine called for the re-evaluation of aspartame with regards to its safety in relation to “its carcinogenicity potential.” 2 The researchers felt that the controversy pertaining to the sweetener’ potential to be carcinogenic (i.e. cancer causing) warranted a total re-examination of the safety of aspartame.
Let’s look at the scientific evidence available and see if aspartame is really as dangerous to our health as it’s made up to be by the natural healing and alternative medicine community.
When aspartame is consumed, it is broken down in the body into:
- Phenylalanine – this is an amino acid
- Aspartic acid – this is also an amino acid
- Methanol – this is an alcohol molecule
If there are any adverse effects from aspartame, it would be from these 3 compounds of the sweetener; so let’s examine each of these compounds closely.
Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid found in dietary protein. Meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, legumes, and nuts contain the highest amounts of phenylalanine.
Since it is a natural occurring amino acid in food containing protein, most folks should not face any issues consuming it, except for people with a genetic condition known phenylketonuria or PKU. 3 Folks with this genetic condition aren’t able to metabolize phenylalanine so their diets must be phenylalanine-free. 4
Aspartic acid is also another natural occurring amino acid found in protein sources like soy, meat, eggs and fish. Our bodies are also able to produce aspartic acid. So again, aspartic acid is also harmless, and I cannot find any scientific study that proves otherwise.
Methanol is an alcohol molecule similar to ethanol that’s found in alcoholic drinks. The US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health says that methanol “occurs naturally in humans, animals, and plants.” 5
However, the US National Library of Medicine classifies methanol as, “a nondrinking type of alcohol used for industrial and automotive purposes.” When consumed in large amounts it can be extremely toxic and can lead to blindness; methanol poisoning can cause death. 6
Given this information about methanol, I’m wondering why would health authorities still permit the use of such a toxic substance in an artificial sweetener? Now, there are claims that aspartame causes cancer and there are some rat studies that support this. 7
Another study showed a weak correlation between the consumption of aspartame and cancer but only in men. 8 One study showed that patients with depression had their symptoms worsen after taking aspartame. 9 Aspartame causes increased brain wave activity associated with seizures in children with epilepsy as shown in this study. 10
My conclusion is that although aspartame is deemed safe by most health authorities, the fact is that it contains methanol with some studies showing it can be detrimental to health.
A private organization, The Center for Science and Public Interest has even put aspartame in the “avoid” category. 11 I would personally stay away from it. Other natural sweeteners are safe which we can use.
This artificial sweetener is found in thousands of processed food and beverages all over the world and is commonly used in cooking and baking. It is actually derived from sugar through a patented chemical process where 3 hydrogen-oxygen groups in the sugar molecule are replaced with 3 chlorine atoms.
Although health authorities and the medical community deem it safe, studies are showing its adverse effects on humans. In one study where 17 obese participants were given sucralose, their blood sugar rose, and their insulin sensitivity also decreased. 12
However another study involving 128 participants with Type 2 diabetes showed no change in either blood glucose or insulin sensitivity levels after being given sucralose in the 13-week study. 13 Sucralose is supposedly heat resistant – that’s why it’s been used extensively in cooking and baking.
A recent research report published by the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health showed that sucralose produced chloropropanes, a toxic compound when used in cooking. 14 Exposure to chloropropanes increases the risk of cancer.
In yet another research, this time a rodent study, researchers found that when rats were given sucralose, their friendly gut bacteria were reduced by nearly half after the 12-week study. Even after the 12 weeks, their gut bacteria had not returned to normal. 16 The Center for Science in the Public Interest has dropped its rating on sucralose, downgrading it from “Safe” to “Caution”. 16
My take on sucralose is to totally avoid it.
Saccharin was linked to cancer in the 1970s when studies on rats given saccharin found that these rodents developed bladder cancer as a result. This led to the US government mandating that products containing saccharin must have a warning label which says, “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” 17
However, subsequent observational studies on humans given saccharin didn’t show any link to cancer. The conclusion was that the cancer development in rats wasn’t relevant to humans because rodents metabolized saccharin differently from humans. This resulted in the US Food and Drug Administration lifting the warning on saccharin in 2000.
Health experts criticized the results of the observational studies on humans given saccharin because these cannot ascertain for certain that there is any link between saccharin and cancer. Moreover, some isolated studies such as this one showed that saccharin and other artificial sweeteners increased activity in colon cancer cells and contributed to DNA damage. 18
Some studies show that saccharin together with sucralose and aspartame disrupted good bacteria in the gut. 19 Disruption of good bacteria in the gut can lead to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, and colorectal cancer. 20
Another study showed that saccharin and other artificial sweeteners altered gut bacteria and contribute to glucose intolerance or impaired glucose tolerance which can lead to type 2 diabetes. 21
Since there is still controversy and doubts by some health experts on the safety of saccharin, I would also recommend avoiding this artificial sweetener as well.
4. Acesulfame Potassium
Acesulfame potassium is also known and labeled as Acesulfame K, Ace-K, and E950 (in Europe). It is a potassium salt containing methylene chloride.
Like the rest of the artificial sweeteners we looked at earlier, acesulfame potassium is also shrouded in controversy. Many health experts still question the safety of artificial sweeteners even though health authorities have deemed them safe. 22
Health experts point to the fact that this artificial sweetener containing methylene chloride is unsafe because methylene chloride is a known carcinogen. 23 They also quote animal studies such as this one that links acesulfame potassium to cancer. 24
In other animal studies, acesulfame potassium has been linked to increases in insulin response, but blood glucose increase wasn’t detected. 25 In another animal study, mice fed with acesulfame potassium showed changes and impairment of cognitive function. 26
Even though acesulfame potassium isn’t as widely studied as the rest of the artificial sweeteners, the fact that many health experts are warning people against consuming it is enough evidence for me to stay clear of it.
There you have it, the low down on all 4 of the common artificial sweeteners. My take is these chemicals are foreign to our bodies – we do not need them and we certainly don’t want to risk our health by consuming them.
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Am J Ind Med. 2014 Apr; 57(4):383-97. doi: 10.1002/ajim.22296. Epub 2014 Jan 16. The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re-evaluation. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24436139
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Phenylketonuria https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenylketonuria
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Prof Care Mother Child. 1998;8 (4): 109-10. Treating phenylketonuria by a phenylalanine-free diet. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9814366
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). METHANOL: Systemic Agent http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ershdb/emergencyresponsecard_29750029.html
- Medscape: Methanol Toxicity. Updated: Mar 30, 2016 Author: Kalyani Korabathina, MD; Chief Editor: Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1174890-overview
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Mar; 114(3):379-85. First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16507461
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec; 96(6):1419-28. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.030833. Epub 2012 Oct 24. Consumption of artificial sweetener- and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23097267
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Biol Psychiatry. 1993 Jul 1-15; 34 (1-2):13-7. Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8373935
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Neurology. 1992 May; 42(5):1000-3. Aspartame exacerbates EEG spike-wave discharge in children with generalized absence epilepsy: a double-blind controlled study. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1579221
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI ranks the safety of food additives—from acetic acid to yellow prussiate of soda—in this definitive glossary of the chemicals used to flavor and preserve our foods. https://cspinet.org/eating-healthy/chemical-cuisine#aspartame
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Diabetes Care. 2013 Sep; 36(9):2530-5. doi: 10.2337/dc12-2221. Epub 2013 Apr 30. Sucralose affects glycemic and hormonal responses to an oral glucose load. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23633524
- Journey of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. December 2003 Volume 103, Issue 12, Pages 1607–1612. Lack of effect of sucralose on glucose homeostasis in subjects with type 2 diabetes. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002822303013646
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2013 Sep; 16(7): 399–451. Published online 2013 Nov 12. doi: 10.1080/10937404.2013.842523. Sucralose, A Synthetic Organochlorine Sweetener: Overview of Biological Issues (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3856475/
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2008; 71(21):1415-29.doi: 10.1080/15287390802328630. Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18800291
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI Downgrades Splenda From “Safe” to “Caution” Group Cites Need to Evaluate Forthcoming Italian Study Linking Artificial Sweetener to Leukemia in Mice. https://cspinet.org/new/201306121.html
- National Cancer Institute. Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/artificial-sweeteners-fact-sheet
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Drug Chem Toxicol. 2015; 38(3):318-27. doi: 10.3109/01480545.2014.966381. Epub 2014 Oct 15. The effect of five artificial sweeteners on Caco-2, HT-29 and HEK-293 cells. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25317478
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Nature. 2014 Oct 9; 514 (7521):181-6. doi: 10.1038/nature13793. Epub 2014 Sep 17. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25231862
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. FEBS Lett. 2014 Nov 17;588(22):4120-30. doi: 10.1016/j.febslet.2014.03.035. Epub 2014 Mar 26. Beneficial modulation of the gut microbiota. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24681100
- Nature International Weekly Journal of Science. Vol 51, Issue 7521. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v514/n7521/full/nature13793.html
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Ann Oncol. 2004 Oct;15(10):1460-5.
- Artificial sweeteners–do they bear a carcinogenic risk? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15367404
- US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Environ Health Perspectives. 2006 Sep; 114(9): A516. Testing Needed for Acesulfame Potassium, an Artificial Sweetener. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1570055/
- Thieme Hormone and Metabolic Research. Horm Metab Res 1987; 19(6): 233-238
- DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-1011788. The Effect of Artificial Sweetener on Insulin Secretion 1. The Effect of Acesulfame K on Insulin Secretion in the Rat (Studies In Vivo) https://www.thieme-connect.de/DOI/DOI?10.1055/s-2007-1011788
- PLOS. One. Published: August 7, 2013. Long-Term Artificial Sweetener Acesulfame Potassium Treatment Alters Neurometabolic Functions in C57BL/6J Mice http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0070257
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