Artificial Sweeteners ... one of the hottest topics in the health & wellness industry.
You'll find them in almost anything these days ... from different foods, diet sodas and other drinks ... right down to supplements & protein bars.
And you've probably been told that you need to avoid them because they're going to cause more sugar cravings, hurt your gut & digestive system, cause harm to your brain, make you gain weight ... or even lead to cancer & other disease.
But what if we told you that's actually not the case ... and that in some instances, artificial sweeteners may actually have health benefits.
Let's take a look at what the science says...
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
Before we go into whether they cause harm to you or not ... it's important to know what artificial sweeteners are.
Artificial sweeteners (also known as sugar substitutes or nonnutritive sweeteners) are used in place of sugar to add sweetness to foods ... often times being able to add more sweetness than regular sugar, using much less of the actual ingredient.
They're also virtually calorie-free ... meaning they add little to no energy to the food they're used in (remember calories are simply a measurement of energy).
Some of the most commonly seen artificial sweeteners include:
Should You Avoid These Types of Sweeteners?
You've probably heard a lot about how "horrible" these types of sweeteners are for your gut & digestive tract ... but is that actually true?
Yes ... there's multiple studies out there showing that artificial sweeteners can weaken your gut lining and cause multiple types of discomfort ... and of course, we don't want that.
BUT ... the only problem with these studies is they're done in-vitro (meaning in a Petri Dish) ... not using actual humans. And some of these studies are also done using mice or rats ... also not humans.
So, what does the science say when we look at actual human studies?
They say that substances like aspartame & sucralose (and many other commonly used sweeteners) cause NO KNOWN NEGATIVE EFFECTS on the human gut microbiome. (1,2,3)
Another issue with in-vitro studies & mice studies, is that the researchers are using what would be the equivalent of a human ingesting somewhere near 100+ gallons (or more) of pure artificial sweeteners ... which of course, no human being is doing.
If a human ingested 100+ gallons of water, well ... let's just say that would be their last drink. Taking in that much of anything is harmful (or deadly) to anyone ... so you can't use that to make claims or determine facts.
What's funny is that in some of these in-vitro studies, particularly ones on something like sucralose ... there's actually evidence that it may have POSITIVE effects on some specific gut bacteria. This particular gut bacteria (when healthy) may help with weight loss, insulin sensitivity ... and overall bodily inflammation. (4,5,6)
This is why it's important to dive into the studies and actually read them ... not just take the advice of your favorite fitness influencer or YouTuber.
There's also some recent claims that have stated artificial sweeteners can make their way to your brain ... and lead to disease such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other cognitive issues.
Not so fast ... because there's zero evidence supporting that, even in the slightest. Your brain is protected by the Blood Brain Barrier ... and it does not allow "un-authorized" substances to enter your brain. Only very particular substances can pass this barrier.
And then we hear things like diet soda is worse for you than regular soda, and it makes you gain more weight ... or that these sweeteners "trick" your body into thinking they're actually real sugar, causing spikes in blood glucose levels.
Well ... it's actually the opposite.
There's literally studies showing that when substituted for sugary drinks ... diet drinks or artificially flavored drinks can actually have health outcomes just as good (if not better) than if you substituted those drinks for water. (7)
And if you really think about this, it makes sense for two specific reasons:
-The people in these studies lost weight because they stopped drinking high-calorie/high-sugar drinks ... and when you get your body to a healthy weight, every single health marker will improve drastically.
-Artificial sweeteners actually have some appetite control properties to them ... so these people also had an easier time controlling how much they ate.
Remember that these sweeteners have zero calories, so they can't possibly cause weight gain. And these studies show that they may actually help with weight loss. (9)
Studies have also shown no negative effects on blood sugar due to ingesting artificial sweeteners. (8) So, they don't mimic real sugar in the body ... or "trick" the body into thinking it's real sugar.
You can even find some of these "artificial" ingredients in common food sources, like:
-Chicken breast (aspartic acid ... an amino acid, also the main building block of aspartame)
-Milk (phenylalanine ... also just a simple amino acid)
... and many others too. Given a lot of these sweeteners are derived from naturally occurring amino acids. Many of these foods also have double, triple, and even quadruple the amounts you'll find in a diet drink.
The Bottom Line
We certainly aren't telling you to eat or drink a bunch of artificial junk ... but we are saying that a lot of what you hear about these foods being "bad" or causing "health issues" is a bit of a jump.
The human data we have available to us shows the complete opposite ... and that in many cases, using artificially sweetened products can actually help you improve your health (when substituted for higher calorie options).
When it's all said and done ... it's about finding a balance. Using these ingredients in small amounts, in most cases, isn't going to cause any health issues.
And when you take care of yourself (stay at a healthy body weight, exercise consistently, sleep well, manage stress, etc) ... you most likely have nothing to worry about when it comes to your health.
But with that being said, if you want to avoid them ... please do. It's not bad to do so, we don't disagree with you for doing so ... and we can even help you find alternative options that fit your goals. That's why we're here.
So, if this is something you struggle with or have questions about ... just stop into your local S2 location, and we'll be sure to get you taken care of!
*This post was written by Andrew Lynn, who has a B.S. in Nutrition & Dietetics. He's also a N.A.S.M. Certified Personal Trainer and N.A.S.M. Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist.
1. Ahmad SY, Friel J, Mackay D. The Effects of Non-Nutritive Artificial Sweeteners, Aspartame and Sucralose, on the Gut Microbiome in Healthy Adults: Secondary Outcomes of a Randomized Double-Blinded Crossover Clinical Trial. Nutrients. 2020 Nov 6;12(11):3408. doi: 10.3390/nu12113408. PMID: 33171964; PMCID: PMC7694690.
2. Thomson P, Santibañez R, Aguirre C, Galgani JE, Garrido D. Short-term impact of sucralose consumption on the metabolic response and gut microbiome of healthy adults. Br J Nutr. 2019 Oct 28;122(8):856-862. doi: 10.1017/S0007114519001570. Epub 2019 Sep 13. PMID: 31258108.
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6. Zhang X, Gu J, Zhao C, Hu Y, Zhang B, Wang J, Lv H, Ji X, Wang S. Sweeteners Maintain Epithelial Barrier Function Through the miR-15b/RECK/MMP-9 Axis, Remodel Microbial Homeostasis, and Attenuate Dextran Sodium Sulfate-Induced Colitis in Mice. J Agric Food Chem. 2022 Jan 12;70(1):171-183. doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.1c06788. Epub 2021 Dec 28. PMID: 34962394.
7. Peters JC, Beck J, Cardel M, Wyatt HR, Foster GD, Pan Z, Wojtanowski AC, Vander Veur SS, Herring SJ, Brill C, Hill JO. The effects of water and non-nutritive sweetened beverages on weight loss and weight maintenance: A randomized clinical trial. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 Feb;24(2):297-304. doi: 10.1002/oby.21327. Epub 2015 Dec 26. PMID: 26708700; PMCID: PMC4744961.
8. Nichol AD, Holle MJ, An R. Glycemic impact of non-nutritive sweeteners: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2018 Jun;72(6):796-804. doi: 10.1038/s41430-018-0170-6. Epub 2018 May 15. PMID: 29760482.
9. Laviada-Molina H, Molina-Segui F, Pérez-Gaxiola G, Cuello-García C, Arjona-Villicaña R, Espinosa-Marrón A, Martinez-Portilla RJ. Effects of nonnutritive sweeteners on body weight and BMI in diverse clinical contexts: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Obes Rev. 2020 Jul;21(7):e13020. doi: 10.1111/obr.13020. Epub 2020 Mar 25. PMID: 32216045.