Sweeteners make food sweet but don’t provide calories, which is why they’re very popular in diet foods. But lately, there have been articles in the media with high-profile headlines that sweeteners cause cancer, diabetes, obesity, and disrupt metabolism.
Sugar is a source of many calories and the enemy of any weight loss, so many people try to avoid it. But most of us are used to sweet foods and don’t want to (can’t) give them up. Therefore, non-caloric chemicals have been invented that stimulate the “sweet” taste buds on the tongue in the same way sugar does. They are many times sweeter than sugar and are used in small amounts.
The overall effect of sweeteners on body weight is not fully understood. On the one hand, most short-term and long-term human studies have shown that replacing sugar helps you lose weight by reducing the total calorie content of the meal.
On the other hand, it is believed that sugar substitutes increase a person’s dependence on the sweet taste. The more any of the body’s receptors are stimulated, the faster the loss of sensitivity occurs, and an increase in dose is required. Sweet taste is no exception here. It sounds logical, but no official studies are confirming the fixation of addiction yet.
Some research shows that sweeteners increase hunger and make you eat more.
Sweeteners and body weight
Scientists have proposed that the sweet taste without calories interferes with appetite regulation because this does not occur in nature. For the brain, it is an unnatural thing.
This has been proven in an experiment conducted on fruit flies. At first glance, humans and flies have nothing in common, and it is incorrect to transfer the results. But fruit flies have great advantages as an experimental model. Not only do they have short lives, but their genetics are also easy to manage, and they are cheap. They have a body reaction similar to humans (and mammals) to the sweet taste of food and its calorie content. They even share some of the same insulin signaling, dopamine reward, and motivation systems humans have.
Flies were fed sweetened sucralose (and other sweeteners for the purity of the experiment) food for five days. During this period, the flies ate much more and were sensitive to the sweet taste. Nutrition returned to normal only after the removal of sucralose from food.
The scientists then compared the effect of the sweetener and regular sugar, which is both sweet and high in calories, on the same flies. The latter did not increase appetite, unlike sucralose.
This led scientists to suggest that a large amount of sucralose creates an imbalance between sweetness and calorie content. As a result, a reaction similar to starvation develops in the body at the level of hormones. Thus, consuming artificially sweetened food in large quantities mimics the effects of fasting on the brain.
Isn’t it time to sound the alarm?
Thus, the scientists suggested that the physiological response to the sweet taste, which does not carry calories, disrupts the mechanisms for controlling appetite and hunger. The brain no longer ‘believes’ that sweet taste is associated with energy, so it triggers hunger.
Although this has been proven in animal experiments, it remains at the level of theory for humans. So far, no direct studies show that artificial sweeteners promote fat storage, including increased hunger.
Theoretically, too many sugar substitutes can cause weight gain, but we need human studies.
So far, much more research shows that sweeteners in moderation make meals less caloric and help you lose weight.
To date, all studies that show the relationship between sweeteners and obesity in humans are observational. This means there is a link between two variables: Obese people drink Diet Coke more and more. Such studies do not prove that cola is the cause of obesity.
Diet soda drinkers are more likely to be overweight due to poor eating habits and other factors.
Some people drink Diet Coke to whiten their poor diet, leading to obesity. Others find they can afford more calories with food because they drink Diet Coke and overeat. So there is a connection, but not a causal one. Diet Coke doesn’t make you fat; it’s just that obese people tend to drink Diet Coke.
Sweeteners, insulin, and diabetes
Some studies show that diet soda can increase the risk of developing diabetes by 6-121%. But all these studies are again based on observations. They cannot prove that artificial sweeteners cause diabetes. They show that people prone to developing type 2 diabetes drink diet soda.
Controlled studies show that artificial sweeteners do not affect blood sugar or raise insulin levels. Aspartame is slightly affected due to the amino acid phenylalanine, but the value is so small that it can be neglected.
The choice of sweeteners
Which sweetener is safer? What to choose? So far, few of them have been studied, but they are most often found in food and drinks.
The FDA approved aspartame in 1974 when enough evidence had accumulated worldwide about its safety. Why does the paranoia about him continue? Most likely due to several rodent studies. They showed that aspartame causes some forms of cancer in them.
But experiments have also shown that doses of aspartame dangerous for humans are much larger than those normal people can eat daily. The FDA has set the allowable daily intake for aspartame at 50 mg/kg body weight. That’s the equivalent of 18-19 Diet Coke.
In addition, rodents and humans have different mechanisms of aspartame metabolism, so research findings cannot be transferred to humans. Aspartame has only been shown to be dangerous in people with the rare hereditary condition phenylketonuria: aspartame can create dangerous levels of the amino acid phenylalanine. Some studies show an association of aspartame with migraines. But for most people, aspartame is perfectly safe in reasonable doses.
FDA approved for use in carbonated beverages in 1998. 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. The human body does not absorb it, so the substance does not bring any calories. One of its breakdown products is considered toxic at high doses – much more than you can eat in a day.
Although sucralose is made from sugar, the human body does not recognize it as sugar. Therefore, it is not digested and does not provide calories.
The tolerable daily dose of sucralose is 5 mg/kg body weight per day, but the typical calculated daily dose for humans is much lower at 1.6 mg/kg per day. Human investigations have revealed no adverse health effects. But similar to aspartame, some studies have found a link between sucralose consumption and migraines.
Of all the artificial sweeteners on this list, saccharin is the only one with a reputation blemish. The FDA tried to ban it in 1977 due to animal studies finding a strong link between saccharin intake and cancer in rodents. And while no study has shown a clear causal relationship between saccharin intake at normal levels and human risks, some studies show a correlation.
So far, there is no conclusive evidence that saccharin at recommended doses harms humans. So overall, even it has a fairly low level of risk.
In addition, saccharin is rare in modern dietary products, unlike aspartame and sucralose.
Sodium cyclamate is 30-50 times sweeter than sugar. The safe daily dose is 10 mg/kg of body weight. The additive is allowed in many countries, including the European Union. It has been banned in the United States since 1969, but the issue of lifting the ban is being considered.
In rodent studies, sodium cyclamate increased the risk of bladder cancer, but epidemiological evidence does not support a similar risk in humans.
Also, some people in the intestines have bacteria that can process sodium cyclamate with the formation of metabolites that are conditionally teratogenic, so it is prohibited for pregnant women (especially in the first 2-3 weeks of pregnancy).
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol. It is a popular ingredient in chewing gums, candies, and other health foods. Due to its structure, it, like sugar, stimulates special receptors on the tongue, getting into them like a key in a lock. Xylitol is similar in sweetness to regular sugar but contains 40% fewer calories at 2.4 per gram.
Numerous fruits and vegetables contain trace levels of xylitol, which is therefore considered natural. A person also produces a small amount of it in metabolism.
Although sugar alcohols (xylitol, erythritol, etc.) are technically carbohydrates, most do not raise blood sugar levels. In addition, xylitol destroys bacteria that cause cavities.
Xylitol is generally well tolerated, but some people may experience gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and/or diarrhea when overdosed.
Erythritol is another sugar alcohol that contains virtually no calories (0.24 calories per gram). It is not absorbed by the body, passing through digestion almost unchanged. For people who are overweight, have diabetes, or have other problems associated with metabolic syndrome, erythritol proves to be an excellent alternative to sugar.
Stevia is an herb whose leaf extract is used as a natural sweetener. It is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar and has a slightly bitter taste. Unlike aspartame, sucralose, and other substances, stevia makes food sweeter and has pharmacological activity.
At low doses, stevia consumption is associated with overall anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. These effects protect the kidneys, pancreas, liver, and brain from damaging stressors.
But too high doses appear to be associated with fertility problems in animals. Although there are no human studies, it is wise not to exceed the recommended amount. The carcinogenic effect of chronically high excess has been found in animals but is assumed to be negligible.
Adequate daily intake is 7.9-25 mg/kg body weight. This dose is sufficient for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects but insufficient for any harmful effects.
To date, no studies indicate any long-term health risks from consuming sugar substitutes at recommended dosages. Sugar substitutes are not harmful to health or body weight ( 24 ).
The only ones who need to limit sweeteners are children, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and those prone to cramps, headaches, or migraines. If you do not fall into one of these groups, do not worry about the dangers of sweeteners.