Clients and members often ask me if artificial sweeteners are bad. Talk about a loaded question. If you eat similarly to a western style diet, which I bet you do - I do - then you probably encounter artificial sweeteners regularly. You see ingredients like aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose and may get nervous wondering why these chemicals are in your food. These are all examples of non-caloric artificial sweeteners and are 80-700x as sweet as common sugar (sucrose). Since they are so much sweeter, very little is needed to substitute sugar in foods. In turn, the artificially sweetened food will be lower in calories. Stevia extract is another popular sugar substitute (however not technically an artificial sweetener because it is naturally derived from the stevia plant) that produces similar results. Sugar substitutes, especially aspartame, get a really bad rap, hence the question at hand.
A 2005 study done on rodents linked aspartame to increase cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. With lightning fast news cycle, mainstream media jumped on this, having headlines that would engrain the fear of aspartame having potentially carcinogenic effects in the minds of readers and listeners alike. However, the media failed to report that researchers concluded the physiological differences between the metabolism of aspartame for rats and humans is so different that the effects would not be similar. Based on more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies, the FDA confirmed their stance that aspartame is safe for human consumption. Furthermore, the FDA set an accepted daily intake of aspartame at 50mg/kg of bodyweight. For a 150 lb. person, this would be the equivalent of 20 12oz Coke Zeros. If you’re at this consumption level of artificial sweeteners, I’d bet there are more pressing concerns for your health to address. (If you don’t trust the FDA for whatever reason, in 2013, the European Food and Safety Administration also confirmed the stance that aspartame is not a carcinogen.) Regardless of what science shows, many people prefer stevia as their go-to substitute because it is natural. This stems from a common fallacy believing that all things natural must be better for you, which we obviously know is not true. (Make some tea out of poison oak and let me know how that works out.) I’m not saying stevia is bad for your health either, but there have been significantly more studies on aspartame that prove it does not put you at any health risks. The research on stevia is incredibly thinner.
Now that we’ve addressed the safety of sugar substitutes, do they work? Like most questions in this field, the overwhelming answer is “it depends”. If your goal is weight loss, one would think that implementing sugar substitutes should lower daily caloric intake, leading to weight loss. The majority of studies suggest that using sugar substitutes does not lead to a significant difference in caloric intake from those consuming common sugar. Science suggests that this is due to the body’s food reward pathways being only partially satisfied. People are more likely to seek out additional calories to make up for the calories not consumed in an artificially sweetened meal. However, if you are someone that closely monitors your caloric intake, you will likely be able to control that desire since you know your target intake goal for the day. Moreover, the calories saved from a sugar substitute can be used for nutrient dense and satiating foods.
In conclusion, I can feel confident in consuming artificially sweeteners, especially aspartame, with no worries of ill health effects. If you are an intuitive eater that eats when they are hungry, artificial sweeteners may not be as beneficial for you because you will likely makeup the calories later in the day. If you are someone that tracks their food intake, artificial sweeteners can be beneficial in satisfying your sweet tooth without the risk of you exceeding your calorie goals.
Links to studies: