Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Bad?

There are few foods that have a more controversial reputation than sugar, and you’ve probably heard that sweets are bad for your health and should be limited. Instead, a long list of best-for-you sugar alternatives promise to deliver the same sweetness without the added carbs and calories. But recently, a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) warned against the use of artificial sweeteners and suggested long-term consumption has its risks.

WHO has indicated that artificial sweeteners should not be used to control body weight or reduce the risk of NCDs. The report went on to say that continued consumption may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even overall mortality in adults. That said, artificial sweeteners are generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so the risk of serious health problems is pretty low, says Stephanie Wells, MS, RD, registered dietitian and founder of Thyme to Go Vegan Nutrition Services.

So, what is the problem? Should you clean your kitchen of artificial sweeteners? POPSUGAR spoke with registered dietitians to learn about the health risks of artificial sweeteners and whether they’re actually bad for you.

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What is Artificial Sweetener, Anyway?

“Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are used to provide a sweet taste to foods and beverages with few or no calories,” says Jenn Baswick, RD, registered dietitian and founder of The Intuitive Nutritionist. “They’re generally quite sweet, so a small amount of artificial sweeteners can replace a fairly large amount of sugar.”

You may be familiar with those little packets of artificial sweetener in restaurants and coffee shops, but these sugar alternatives are more common than you might think. “Artificial sweeteners are often found in diet sodas and foods marketed as ‘no added sugar’ or ‘keto friendly,'” says Wells. They’re also typically found in baked goods, frostings, puddings, chewing gum, ice cream, yogurt, bottled juices, breads, nonfat salad dressings, and condiments like ketchup, it adds.

Artificial sweeteners: side effects and health risks

Side effects from consuming artificial sweeteners are uncommon. However, some people may be more sensitive to the ingredient and experience headaches or worsening mood after consuming aspartame, in particular, Wells says. Others report digestive distress such as gas, constipation and bloating after consuming foods with certain artificial sweeteners, but it’s not conclusive whether these side effects are actually caused by the artificial sweeteners themselves, adds Baswick.

Now, when it comes to potential health risks, the findings are preliminary and much more research is needed. Some studies have suggested potential links between some artificial sweeteners and conditions like metabolic disorders, cancer risk, or altered gut microbiota, Baswick says. Specifically, saccharin and sucralose intake have been associated with higher blood glucose responses and impaired gut microbiome function in adults, she explains.

Another study found that high consumption of artificial sweeteners, in general, was associated with an increased risk of cancer. That said, the research hasn’t clearly shown a cause-and-effect relationship, Baswick explains. “The overall research base currently lacks conclusive evidence of significant health risks in moderate consumption of artificial sweeteners,” she says.

There may also be a link between artificial sweeteners and inflammation in the gut, according to a 2021 study. Again, more research is needed, but if true, artificial sweeteners could exacerbate symptoms of digestive conditions like Crohn’s or inflammatory bowel disease, Wells explains.

The bottom line is that more analysis is needed to make any conclusive statements about the impact of artificial sweeteners on long-term health risks. “It’s quite difficult to be absolutely certain of nutrition research findings, and these findings don’t necessarily show cause and effect,” says Baswick.

Artificial sweeteners versus sugar

The main difference between artificial sweeteners and sugar lies in their composition, calorie content and level of sweetness, Baswick explains. “Artificial sweeteners are chemically modified compounds made to be low- or zero-calorie substitutes for sugar that provide sweetness,” she explains. In other words, artificial sweeteners are created in labs, while sugar is found more naturally in plants like sugar cane, corn and beets, Wells says.

It’s also vital to remember that sugar isn’t bad or inherently bad. “Sugar contains calories and contributes to an individual’s total energy intake,” says Baswick. “It may seem appealing to many that artificial sweeteners offer a way to reduce calorie intake, but it’s important to remember that sugar provides a source of energy and can be part of a balanced diet.”

So, is sugar better than artificial sweeteners? It is hard to say. “Small amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners in an overall well-balanced diet probably won’t be problematic, but relying too much on these ultra-processed foods could crowd out more nutrient-dense foods known to reduce the risk of chronic disease,” Wells says. “WHO has clarified that the evidence for their new recommendation is weak, so the true impact of artificial sweeteners on our health remains to be seen.”

The most common artificial sweeteners

If you want to keep an eye out for artificial sweeteners in your foods, Baswick and Wells say the following are the most common:

  • Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
  • Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K or Ace-K, Sweet One)
  • Neotame (Newtame)
  • Advantage
  • Stevia
  • Monk fruit extract

So, are artificial sweeteners bad for you?

There’s no clear cut answer, and it’s hard to say for sure that something is absolutely “bad for you,” Baswick says. “Of course, with anything we want to be mindful of consuming it in excess, and the same goes for artificial sweeteners,” she explains. “I would say food is not something to fear, sugar is not bad and can be eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet.”

Also, it’s important to remember that the WHO’s new recommendations are based on research with low overall certainty, Wells said. “Artificial sweeteners can be very helpful for people with a sweet tooth who are trying to eat less sugar and for people with active type 2 diabetes trying to manage their blood sugar,” she explains. “My main conclusion is that small amounts of artificial sweeteners and sugar in the diet may not cause health problems in the context of a balanced diet containing plenty of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.”

Image source: Getty / HUIZENG HU

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