Artificial sweeteners are the darlings of the food industry, enabling food manufacturers to label items as “zero-calorie” and “sugar-free”, found in everything from diet sodas to chewing gum and granola bars. Artificial sweeteners are one of the most commonly used additives in processed foods, offering a solution to individuals trying to lose weight or ways to satisfy a sweet tooth, but at what cost?
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are a mix of laboratory chemicals, combined to create a sweet taste. They were originally created to help serve a health purpose as they are 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, and therefore only a very small amount is needed to provide sweetness without added calories. They were positioned as a “guilt-free” alternative to sugar used by food manufacturers in diet food products labeled as “zero-calorie” or “sugar-free”.
Today, there are many artificial sweeteners on the market including aspartame (Equal™), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low™), sucralose (Splenda™), Ace-K, and Nutrasweet™. However, these non-nutritive sweeteners, as they are sometimes referred to, have been controversial since their introduction to the market in the 1950s, and with good reason, as they are anything but healthy.
The Problems with Artificial Sweeteners
Although created with good intentions, it turns out artificial sweeteners are likely too good to be true, and their side effects may not be worth it.
Artificial Sweeteners are Chemicals
At the end of the day, artificial sweeteners are chemicals, there is just no way around it. Artificial sweeteners are chemical products created in a laboratory and are anything but natural for our bodies to consume. When it comes to food, the definition is actually really simple; there is real food, and then there is everything else. Artificial sweeteners are heavily processed, chemically created, food-like products that serve no function or benefit to the body. Windex is also calorie-free, but you wouldn’t use that in your food, would you? Perhaps that’s an extreme comparison, but the picture I’m trying to paint is that artificial sweeteners are chemicals that don’t serve a role or function in our bodies.
Artificial Sweeteners Lead to More Cravings, Not Less
Some studies have found that artificial sweeteners disrupt the body’s natural ability to regulate calorie intake, interpret hunger signals, and deal with food cravings. When we consume something sweet, our brain expects to consume sugar and therefore calories as well. However, when we consume calorie-free chemicals like artificial sweeteners no calories follow the sweet taste, and therefore our brains will signal for us to continue consuming the sweet taste until calories follow. Because artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than natural sugars, they actually activate our taste buds to crave very strong sweet tastes and more of it.
Artificial Sweeteners Can Contribute to Weight Gain
Although artificial sweeteners are “calorie-free” these chemical food additives have been shown to contribute to weight gain, not weight loss as they were intended. For most of human history, sweeteners were inextricably tied to caloric density. Humans (and other animals) have a natural ability to regulate calories and weight based on the taste and texture of food. Recently, studies have found that although artificial sweeteners are “calorie-free” their sweetness still stimulates the production of insulin, your fat-storage hormone. When our bodies release insulin, we are in a storage mode since insulin’s job is to put nutrients into your cells, however, in the case of artificial sweeteners, there are no nutrients present. As no nutrients are present in the body, the signal loop becomes damaged, our hunger cues remain, and this can lead to overeating.
Artificial Sweeteners Harm Gut Bacteria
We know that the health of our gut is incredibly important and if our gut is healthy chances we are too. The beneficial bacteria in our gut help to produce vitamins, absorb nutrients, protect us from infection, and support the health of our overall immune system. A dysbiosis, or disruption in our gut bacteria, has been shown to affect a number of common health concerns including skin issues, digestive issues, and weight gain. Because artificial sweeteners are, just that, artificial, they pass through the digestive system untouched and undigested. However, recent research suggests that although they are not directly digested by the body, their chemical nature can influence your health by changing your gut bacteria.
The Bottom Line
Artificial sweeteners are chemical products that serve no beneficial function, purpose, or role in our health. If you want to consume a sweet treat, you are best to actually consume a sweet treat, not a chemically processed product that just happens to taste sweet. Focus on natural sweeteners, enjoy treats in moderation, and leave artificial sweeteners for the laboratory.