We’ve already done a deep dive into how sugar impacts your health, and the verdict on that one is pretty clear (spoiler alert: it’s bad). So those of us with a sweet tooth might naturally turn to artificial sweeteners, which give you that sugary flavor without any of the sugar or calories. But are the effects of artificial sweeteners on the body and your weight any better than those of sugar? In this guide, we’ll answer that question, exploring the types of artificial sweeteners, the side effects of artificial sweeteners, the link between artificial sweeteners and diabetes, and more.
As the name suggests, artificial sweeteners are substances that add sweetness to food or drink with a whole bunch of chemicals, rather than sugar itself. They generally have zero calories and, of course, zero grams of sugar. Because many Americans want to cut down on sugar without actually changing their diets significantly, the artificial sweetener industry is huge, and there are lots of different kinds to choose from.
Here are the most common brands and types of artificial sweeteners you’ll see:
Saccharin: This is the ingredient used in the brand Sweet’N Low. It is made from the chemicals o-toluene sulfonamide or phthalic anhydride in a lab and is 300-400 times as sweet as sucrose (sugar), and can have a metallic aftertaste.
Aspartame: This is the ingredient used in the brand Equal. It consists of the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and is 200 times sweeter than sucrose.
Sucralose: This is the ingredient used in the brand Splenda. It is made of sucrose that has been chlorinated, and it is 320-1,000 times sweeter than sucrose.
Stevia: Stevia is a plant-based artificial sweetener that is used in various brands. It is derived from the plant Stevia rebaudiana and is 30-150 times sweeter than sucrose.
There are other types of artificial sweeteners that you’ll see on the market (you’ll know it’s an artificial sweetener because it’s marketed as being zero calories or containing zero sugar), but the four above are the most common.
Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
So you get a kick of sweetness without any extra calories or any of the negative effects of sugar — win-win, right? Not so fast. Unfortunately, the list of side effects from artificial sweeteners is long. This makes sense, given that artificial sweeteners are made of chemicals in a lab, which are not things that your body recognizes or knows what to do with. The specific side effects of artificial sweeteners vary from brand to brand, but here’s a rundown:
Increased appetite: While many people turn to artificial sweeteners to lose weight, they can actually have the opposite effect, as studies have shown that artificially sweetened food and drink can leave people feeling hungrier and craving sugar. This may be because they confuse your brain with a sweet taste but lack of calories. Increased appetite is a health risk because it can lead to overeating, which can in turn lead excessive weight gain or obesity, both of which increase risk of diabetes among other health issues.
Cancer risk. There’s an ongoing debate on whether or not artificial sweeteners can increase your risk of developing cancer, with different studies coming to different conclusions: However, given that at least one study has associated saccharine with bladder cancer, we think that’s reason enough to steer clear.
Depression: Research suggests that the sweetener aspartame can cause depression in some people, especially those with pre-existing mood disorders.
Headaches: Several studies have shown that aspartame can cause headaches in some people, with those who suffer from migraines more susceptible.
One of the other serious side effects of artificial sweeteners is their impact on your gut health, which in turn can increase diabetes risk. We’ll explore this one more closely.
The Relationship Between Artificial Sweeteners, the Gut, and Diabetes Risk
People with diabetes often turn to artificial sweeteners to get the taste of sweeteners without throwing their insulin levels out of whack. Doing this has its own health risks, which we outlined above, but the real issue here is for those who don’t have diabetes yet: ironically, for those without diabetes, using artificial sweeteners can actually increase the risk of developing the condition.
To understand why this is the case, you first need to understand how artificial sweeteners impact gut health. “A study came out that was pretty profound and was a big splash in the media, showing that artificial sweeteners actually destroy and injure the microbiome,” says Dr. Gerard Mullin, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the study, researchers found that artificial sweeteners disrupted gut bacteria balance in healthy participants who weren’t used to consuming artificial sweeteners. This is a big deal, since the makeup of our gut bacteria is what informs our gut health, and our gut health impacts basically every system in our body.
In the case of artificial sweeteners, the shift in gut bacteria seems to make it far likelier that a person will develop diabetes. In the study, those whose gut bacteria had changed showed poorer blood sugar control just five days after consuming the artificial sweetener. In another study out of Europe, researchers found that chronic consumption of artificial sweeteners increased their risk of type 2 diabetes, regardless of other risk factors.
For those who are already diabetic, Dr. Mullin concedes that sometimes an artificial sweetener is the right choice if a person is struggling to control their blood glucose levels through other lifestyle changes. “For the person who’s stuck and needs to find a way to make some swaps, I encourage stevia,” says Dr. Mullin.
While stevia is certainly not side effect-free, Dr. Mullin explains that it doesn’t have the known deleterious effect on the gut microbiome, and it’s certainly a better choice for diabetics than synthetic sweeteners, like aspartame. “Aspartame has been clearly shown in animals to be diabetogenic, which is a catch-22 because they’re diabetic already and they’re taking things to improve their diabetes and lessen their sugar load, but they’re making their diabetes worse because their microbiome is taking a hit,” says Dr. Mullin.
Of course, the best way for diabetics to reduce their sugar load and to manage diabetes is to choose natural, whole, low-sugar foods, and stay away from processed foods with added sugars. A more natural artificial sweetener like stevia can be a good temporary option to help someone get things under control, but the real answer path to health comes with implementing sustainable lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, many practitioners who treat diabetic patients are not communicating that message.
Perpetuating the Artificial Sweetener Myth
While the research exists on the side effects of artificial sweeteners and their negative impact on gut health and diabetes risk, there is a disconnect between that research and doctors, and between doctors and patients.
“Who’s going to really elucidate this type of information? Most of the doctors aren’t very aware of it and would say it’s all about calories in/calories out, it’s all about energy, drink diet soda by the gallon,” says Dr. Mullin. “Some people actually do, and it’s a shame because they ultimately gain more weight because of what they’re doing to themselves.”
The answer here is for doctors to become more educated on the long-term effects of these fake sweeteners, and pass that education onto their patients. Unfortunately, in our quick-fix medical culture, this isn’t generally the approach. Artificial sweeteners offer an easy, affordable way for people to feel like they can be healthy without making any sacrifices — but the research indicates that that’s not really the case.
More research is needed on the topic, as well as more coverage of the research to bring awareness to the issue. However, Dr. Mullin points out that with any forthcoming studies, we should be wary of the source. “There’s more and more data coming out about the effect of artificial sweeteners,” he says. “But there’ll be some studies that contradict that, which will be well-funded, and then others aren’t, so it confuses the masses.”
By well-funded, we believe Dr. Mullin is talking about studies paid for by the sugar or soda lobby, with skewed data. This is a common move from large food industries (like sugar, snack, alcohol, meat, or dairy) to confuse people after research is published showing the products they sell can be harmful to human health.
Conclusion: The Sweet & Low-Down on Artificial Sweeteners
There are a lot of different types of artificial sweeteners, and a lot of contradictory information on how they impact your health. Here’s what you need to remember on the topic:
Artificial sweeteners are a class of substances that create a sweet taste without any calories or sugar. Most are derived from chemicals in a lab, but some (like stevia) come from plants.
The most common types of artificial sweeteners in the United States are: saccharine (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and stevia.
While artificial sweeteners lack many of the negative health effects of sugar, they have their own set of issues. The side effects of artificial sweeteners include: headache, depression, increased risk of cancer, and weight gain due to increased appetite, as well as the two issues below (impact on gut health and increased diabetes risk).
Research has shown that artificial sweeteners significantly alter the makeup of bacteria in the gut microbiome, which hurts your gut health.
One of the impacts of this altered microbiome is poorer blood sugar control, which in turn increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Many doctors are not aware of the health risks of artificial sweeteners and so do not communicate that risk to patients. Additionally, studies funded by vested interests may emerge that allegedly “prove” the safeness of artificial sweeteners.
At the end of the day, remember that if anything seems too good to be true, it is. The best way to reduce your sugar consumption is to wean yourself off of sweet things, pure and simple. If you are having sugar cravings, it is likely an imbalance in your gut of bad microbes that are doing the craving, not you! The only way to stop cravings is to not give into them, or to slowly reduce your consumption until the cravings are gone. If you are going to have some sugar, make it a healthier sugar like the options above, have just a tiny bit, savor it, and make it just a rare treat!
Have you experienced the side effects of artificial sweeteners firsthand? Share your story in the comments below.