Artificial Sweeteners Harmful Effects: Scares or Facts?
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? If they are indeed harmful, then what natural alternatives are there?
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 and to diabetics who need to cut sugar drastically.
Artificial sweeteners work the same way as sugar and other junk food by enabling the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that enables 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 cause massive dopamine releases, much more than healthy whole foods.
On the other hand, eating healthy whole foods enables 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.
So, in the end we get addicted to sugar and sugar laden foods.
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”. 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.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, a world renowned practitioner in natural healing and health expert, got this video made a year before the American Journal of Industrial Medicine report came out: the video warns about the dangers 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. Folks with this genetic condition aren’t able to metabolize phenylalanine so their diets must be phenylalanine free.
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.”
However, The US National Library of Medicine classifies methanol as, “a non-drinking 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!
Given this information about methanol, I’m wondering why would health authorities still permit the use of such a toxic substance in aspartame? Most importantly, would you want this toxic substance in your body?
Another study showed a correlation on the consumption of aspartame and cancer but only in men.
However, other research have not found evidence of aspartame being linked to cancer in humans.
One study showed that patients with depression had their symptoms worsen after taking aspartame.
Aspartame also causes increased brain wave activity associated with seizures in children with epilepsy as shown in this study.
There is another claim that aspartame causes headaches but there isn’t any real research study to back this up.
A private organization, The Center for Science and Public Interest has warned that pregnant women and children should not take aspartame; in fact it has even put aspartame in the “avoid” category because of the negative press surrounding studies such as those I’ve mentioned.
My conclusion is that although aspartame is deemed safe by health authorities, the fact is that it contains methanol, a toxic substance, and with some studies showing aspartame can be detrimental to health, is enough evidence for me. I would personally stay away from it. There are other natural sweeteners which are safe that 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 in a patented chemical process where 3 hydrogen-oxygen groups in the sugar molecule are replaced with 3 chlorine atoms.
Sucralose is supposedly heat resistant; that’s why it’s been used extensively in cooking and baking. Although health authorities and the medical community deem it safe, there are studies 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.
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.
A recent research report published by the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health showed that sucralose produced chloropropanols, a toxic compound when used in cooking. Exposure to chloropropanols increases the risk of cancer.
In another study, it was found that consumption of sucralose negatively impacts glucose, insulin and glucagon levels. Glucagon is a hormone produced by the pancreas.
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. Gut bacteria disruption can lead to colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and obesity.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has dropped its rating on sucralose, downgrading it from “Safe” to “Caution”.
My take on sucralose is the same as that of aspartame – avoid it totally!
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.”
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 no 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.
Some studies show that saccharin together with sucralose and aspartame disrupted good bacteria in the gut. Disruption of good bacteria in the gut can lead to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer.
Another study showed that saccharin and other artificial sweeteners altered gut bacteria and contribute to impaired glucose tolerance which can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Based on the controversy and doubts by health experts on the safety of saccharin plus the results of studies like those I mentioned, I would also recommend avoiding this artificial sweetener totally.
Acesulfame potassium is also known and labelled 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.
Health experts point to the fact that this artificial sweetener containing methylene chloride is unsafe because methylene chloride is a known carcinogen. They also quote animal studies such as this one that links acesulfame potassium to cancer.
In other animal studies, acesulfame potassium has been linked to increases in insulin secretion but blood glucose increase wasn’t detected.
In a separate animal study, mice fed with acesulfame potassium showed changes and impairment of cognitive function.
Even though acesulfame potassium isn’t as widely studied as the rest of the artificial sweeteners, the fact that it contains methylene chloride and many health experts are warning people against consuming it is enough evidence for me to stay clear of it. How about you?
Some of you may be wondering, “If I avoid all these common artificial sweeteners then what should I use to sweeten my coffee?”
There are 3 natural sweeteners that I would recommend:
- Raw Honey
- Monk Fruit
Stevia extract is from the stevia plant which is native to South America. Stevia has been one of the mainstays of folk medicine for centuries.
It can lower elevated blood pressure and blood glucose levels and fight diabetes. It contains no fructose and glucose so diabetics can use it without worry. It is very much sweeter than sugar: 1 teaspoon of stevia is as sweet as 1 cup of sugar.
When buying stevia, please do not buy Truvia which is highly processed stevia plus a GMO corn derivative erythritol, and added chemical solvents, one of which is acetonitrile, a carcinogen.
Stevia comes in both powder and liquid and should be easily available at your local health food store. If you are unable to purchase it at your location, you can always buy it from my Amazon store under the sweetener section.
Raw honey (not the commercial honey) is one of nature’s sweeteners and functional foods that’s packed with 22 amino acids, 27 minerals and 5,000 enzymes; it has also B vitamins: vitamin B6, thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and niacin plus antioxidants that fight oxidative stress and free radicals.
It can help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increase HDL and fight inflammation for healthy people.
However, I would not recommend raw honey for folks with prediabetes or diabetes, simply because although raw honey is healthier than sugar, it is still mainly fructose (about 3% to 55%). It will still raise blood sugar although not as much as sugar.
For healthy folks I would recommend moderate honey intake because of the high fructose content.
You should be able to buy raw or organic honey from your health food store; if you are unable to purchase it near your location, you can always buy raw honey from my Amazon shop under the sweeteners section.
The monk fruit is also known as Luo Han Guo (罗汉果) which is the Chinese name for the fruit.
The monk fruit has been used both in Chinese cuisine and Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries and is used to relief cough, sore throat and is an excellent expectorant. It is native to Southern China and Northern Thailand.
The fruit’s sweetness is mostly from mogrosides, antioxidants which are metabolized very differently from sugar or glucose and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels like sugar.
This makes the monk fruit extract an excellent sugar substitute for both healthy folks and diabetics alike. It can help lower blood sugar, fight inflammation and is an excellent source of antioxidants.
The monk fruit comes in several forms: dried fruit, Chinese herbal teas, powder and liquid. The dried fruit and herbal teas can be bought from Chinese grocery or medical stores in Chinatown in large Western cities. In north and south-east Asia, Chinese medical shops are relatively easy to find.
The powder and liquid extracts should be available from your local health food store; if you are unable to get them at your location, you can always buy them from my Amazon store under the sweetener section.
Well, I hope you now have an idea regarding the adverse effects artificial sweeteners can have on your health. If you have any comments or questions regarding artificial or natural sweeteners please leave them in the comments column below, I’ll be more than happy to answer them.