Many people reach for colorful packets of artificial sweeteners instead of sugar. In fact, so many people have come to rely on them to replace the sugar in their lives that the high-intensity sweetener market has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, raking in close to $2 billion in revenue in 2017 alone.
If you’re contemplating exchanging white sugar for artificial sweeteners, you’re not alone. There are tons of people right now who are trying to figure out which choice is right for their lives. To make your decision easier, we’ve come up with some pros and cons of using artificial sweeteners. Read on so you can make an informed dietary decision.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several different artificial sweeteners for use in food. They are: aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, and advantame.
There are several other artificial sweeteners being produced around the world that have not been approved for consumption in the United States. These artificial sweeteners, for the most part, are chemical compounds that were created specifically to mimic the sweetness of real sugar.
Some other artificial sweeteners, like stevia, sorbitol, and xylitol, are actually found naturally in different fruits and vegetables, and have been extracted and used as sugar substitutes.
Pro: They Don’t Contain Calories
One of the major reasons that people reach for artificial sweeteners over regular white or brown sugar is because they don’t contain calories. Or at least that’s how they’re advertised. They actually contain a tiny number of calories, but the amount is so negligible that the manufacturers are allowed to claim that each packet contains zero calories on the label.
People who are trying to lose weight often reach for products that contain artificial sweeteners, like diet soda, and drinks and snacks labelled “light” or “calorie-free.” Diet soda is where most people consume the most artificial sweeteners. People don’t want to give up their tasty soda, so they replace their regular with the brand’s diet alternative.
CON: No Evidence that Artificial Sweeteners Help You Lose Weight
It makes sense. People who are hoping to lose weight without changing their habits can cut down on their calories simply by reaching for a diet soda, rather than their usual full-sugar version. However, studies have shown that drinking diet soda actually causes most people to gain weight and has been linked to obesity in children. Scientists believe that the weight gain is caused because artificial sweeteners don’t fully activate the brain’s sensations of being sated the way that sugar does, so people over-eat in an effort to attain that satisfied feeling.
PRO: Artificial Sweeteners Don’t Erode Teeth in the Same Way that Natural Sugar Does
People who eat a lot of sugar and carbohydrates usually have a pretty unpleasant experience at the dentist when their yearly checkup rolls around. Carbohydrates and sugar stick to tooth enamel, which means that they hang around much longer than other food, and are available for bacteria to feed on. Eventually, the bacteria converts the sugar to acids that decay your teeth.
Unlike natural sugar, artificial sweeteners don’t stick to your teeth in the same way. In fact, one artificial sweetener, xylitol, has been used in gums and other health products because it prevents bacteria from adhering to the surface of your teeth. If you’re worried about dental damage, you should consider using xylitol over natural sugar.
CON: Artificial Sweeteners Don’t Contain Any Nutrients
The downside of using artificial sweeteners instead of regular sugar to try and lose weight is that there are no nutrients in the artificial sweeteners at all. They do not add any bulk or volume to food, which means that they’re particularly difficult to use in baking. This also means they don’t cause your blood glucose levels to spike in the same way that natural sugar does.
If you’re looking to try artificial sweeteners in an effort to cut down on calories, just be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of replacing those calories that you would have gotten from sugar with other food.
PRO: Sugar is More Expensive, Making Artificial Sweeteners a Much Cheaper Alternative
Natural sugar is extremely expensive to produce as it has to be extracted, then refined from either sugar beets or sugar cane. This process takes a long time and requires the use of expensive equipment and lots of man hours.
In contrast, artificial sweeteners have mostly been developed in labs. While the proprietary mix of chemical compounds was initially expensive to develop, now that they have the formula, they reproduce it at a very low cost to the consumer. Artificial sweeteners also have an extremely long shelf life (because they’re basically just powdered chemicals), and are not susceptible to heat and light the way that natural sugar is.
CON: Artificial Sweeteners Have Been Linked to Increased Risks for Serious Diseases
Many people have questions about the potential health risks when they first start exploring artificial sweeteners. Aspartame has recently come under scrutiny due to its potentially cancer-causing properties, as well as complaints that there are neurological side effects to consuming too much of it.
There have been studies done on artificial sweeteners links to cancer and metabolic disorders, but both studies came back inconclusive. However, a study recently linked artificially sweetened soda with an increased risk factor for strokes and dementia. These studies are still ongoing, and it’s important to read all of the research available before making a decision.
PRO: Artificial Sweeteners Can Be Eaten by People Who Have Diabetes or Hypoglycemia
Many people who have been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus or hypoglycemia rely on artificial sugar substitutes to sweeten their food instead of sugar. Glucose, which is the compound found in sugar, negatively impacts people with these diseases, and can hugely affect their diet.
Diabetics have issues regulating their blood sugar levels, and consequently must keep a very close eye on their food intake since tons of things that we’re used to eating on a daily basis have sugar in them and can spike their blood sugar levels sky-high if they’re not careful. People with conditions like diabetes and hypoglycemia are constantly on the hunt for sugar substitutes that taste great without having the same adverse health effects as real sugar.
CON: Not All Artificial Sweeteners in Use Today Have Been Fully Approved by the FDA
In recent years, the FDA has had to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation as the artificial sweetener industry searches for the next big compound that will sweeten food more subtly, and cost less for the consumer. The result of this struggle is that the FDA has simply not been able to test all of the different blends that are available on the market for purchase.
As well, many different artificial sweeteners are marketed as dietary supplements, rather than food, in an effort to avoid FDA scrutiny. These non-FDA approved sweeteners are still being sold in supermarkets — they just aren’t subject to the same oversight as food ingredients.
PRO: There Are Several Natural Sweeteners That Make a Great Substitute for Sugar
While we’ve mostly been focused on chemical artificial sweeteners, the truth is that there are a few reputable natural alternatives to sugar that we haven’t talked about yet.
Agave nectar is made from sap drawn from the agave cactus and is sweeter than both honey and sugar. Stevia is extracted from plant leaves and has zero calories while being 150 times sweeter than sugar — meaning that you can use way less of it. Both of these are options worth exploring if you’re trying to cut back on your sugar intake.
CON: They May Be More Addictive Than We Realize
It’s hard to assess the effect that artificial sweeteners have on human beings over time, because they simply haven’t been on the market for that long. Although people reach for artificial sweeteners for many reasons, it’s important to be aware when they’re adversely impacting your health, and take steps to limit your intake. This may be harder than we realize.
One study exposed lab rats to both artificial sweeteners and cocaine, then offered them a choice of both. Most rats chose the artificial sweetener over the cocaine.