We visit our favorite coffee shop and order the usual: coffee with almond milk, no sugar. Instead, we reach for two packets of calorie-free sugar substitute. Good choice, right? Think again. In terms of long-term health, it’s possible that this small-seeming choice in sweetener comes with side effects.
Zero calorie sweeteners with no sugar may seem like a no-brainer food swap. In fact, switching to calorie and sugar-free sweeteners is a growing trend all over the world. As many of us are aware, sugar itself can lead to some serious health issues as well, from diabetes to obesity and high blood pressure. It’s no wonder many of us are making a switch to these alternatives, but is it the right call?
The Growing Sugar-free Trend
According to the New York Times, 11% of food items on American supermarkets shelves will be labelled as reduced sugar this year. That’s a pretty large number in the grand scheme of things. What hasn’t changed, however, is America’s sweet tooth. This reduction in sugar does not mean these products are becoming any less sweet. In order to cut the calories that come along with table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, some sort of substitution for sweetener must be made.
The demand for artificial sweeteners is growing and they are popping up in everything: diet drinks and sodas, desserts, savory foods and breads, energy bars, gums, sugar-free teas, chocolates, yogurts, creamers – even toothpastes, mouthwash and vitamins.
There are 5 artificial sweeteners approved for consumption – acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin (which many countries have actually banned,) and sucralose.
Cause for Concern?
If there are questions on the safety of sweeteners, then why then are they on the market at all? As we pointed out in a past article on sucralose, the issue stems from the fact that most artificial sweeteners are tested on lab rats, not humans. Rats are given such high dosages daily that the FDA has deduced we as humans would never consume the same quantities and so would never experience the same symptoms shown in laboratory rats. That being said, the artificial products produced in a lab and meant for humans to consume regularly do cause wide-ranging health issues in these rats and give us, personally, a cause for some concern. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know enough about these artificial sweeteners and their long term effects on the body to rule out any potential issues.
What we do know is that in studies done on lab rats, symptoms experienced include a wide range of issues including shrunken thymus glands, enlarged livers, kidney disorders, cancers and infertility.
The short term studies that have been conducted on humans have shown a much smaller spectrum of symptoms ranging from digestive disturbances, bloating, and weight gain to mood-related symptoms from anxiety, depression and mania.
Over the years the makers of sweeteners keep track of data from their users. This information is public and we can track firsthand the symptoms possibly associated with these products here. Here are some of the most commonly suspected risks associated with these calorie-free, sugar-free sweeteners…
Potential Symptoms from Sugar-free Substitutes:
Increased Appetite/ weight gain:
Isn’t one of the main assets of these sweeteners that they help us minimize our calorie intake and therefore our waistlines? While they have no calories, a number of studies on aspartame and saccharin have suggested that they may actually cause weight gain by interfering with fundamental homeostatic and physiological processes of the body. [1-4]
Technically, these sweeteners are not actually sugars at all, but they still are 200-600 times sweeter than table sugar and even more potent than high fructose corn syrup. This means that in sensitive individuals, this sweet flavor alone may still trigger and overstimulate our sugar receptor sites to activate the same pancreatic insulin response that sugar does. This could be problematic if the person consuming them has diabetes or trouble regulating their blood sugar levels. Of course this issue is not relegated to artificial sweeteners alone. The same could be true for more natural calorie-free sugar substitutes as well such as stevia. Be sure to gauge your reaction and limit these sweeteners especially if you already are managing blood sugar.
Reports of mood disorders have been reported with all artificial sweeteners. Users claim reactions ranging from dizziness, agitation and irritability, nervousness, migraines, depression to manic episodes. One study on aspartame suggests that diketopiperazine, a compound which forms when aspartame decomposes, may be responsible for some of these brain reactions . Aspartame is not supposed to be heated above 86 degrees F, and when it is, it converts to formaldehyde and then formic acid. The methanol toxicity from this chemical reaction may mimic multiple sclerosis and delayed hypersensitivity [6-7]. Much more data is needed to prove causality in these cases.
Sugar substitutes may be linked with a long list of skin reactions from numbness of the skin, swelling and inflammation, rashes and hives. It is still unclear exactly these allergies arise, however it is something to keep an eye out for, especially in sensitive individuals as well as children.
Some of the most common side effects are linked to the wide range of intestinal complaints from boating and gas, intestinal cramping and diarrhea, constipation, to decreased beneficial gut flora. In severe cases, the loss of these beneficial bacteria or probiotics can cause damage to the GI tract, permeability and actually create food allergies and sensitivities in the process. This suppression of the immune system may lead to many of the other mental and bodily symptoms one might experience.
One of the most publicized risks associated with artificial sweeteners is cancer. In lab studies conducted on animals, brain tumors, breast cancer, lymphomas, leukemias and bladder cancers have been reported [8-9]. While there is not evidence of artificial sweeteners causing cancer in humans to date, we feel uneasy consuming any product that has a history of causing these sort of reactions in any living creature. Could it be that these products have not been around long enough to gauge their accurate long term effects on a human body? We’d rather not subject ourselves to the long term self study.
So now what?
How to avoid artificial sweeteners:
As always, read your labels and nutrient facts. A product labelled as “sugar-free”, “no added sugar”, “light”, or “low calorie” is a good indication that it includes a form of artificial sweetener. Read that label. Don’t forget to check your toothpastes and mouthwashes as well!
Going back to the basics is a trend we can get behind. If you are craving a little sugar in your coffee or tea, reach for the natural sweeteners like raw honey, coconut sugar, yacon, or maple syrup. In their raw state these are much healthier choices all around and include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber to slow the effects of sugar. Remember sugar is still sugar, so use it minimally and as a special treat, not a routine.
For those that avoid it at all costs, or are still looking for a lower calorie option, try monk fruit or unprocessed stevia. (Keep in mind that even some of these more natural derivatives can have reactions from GI disturbances such as cramping, flatulence and indigestion, so be sure to trust your instinct and gauge your individual reaction to new products.)
Kirtida R. Tandel. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2011 Oct-Dec; 2(4): 236–243. Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits
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The Chalkboard Mag and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All material on The Chalkboard Mag is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health program.