By Helaine Krasner, RDN, CDN
Are artificial sweeteners safe? The quick answer is “yes”. However, the whole story is a bit more complicated, and research is ongoing.
There are five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners used as sugar substitutes: sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (also known as Ace K), aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and neotame. Other sugar substitutes labeled natural include sugar alcohols, stevia (Truvia, PureVia), and monk fruit.
Although the term natural is not clearly defined or strictly regulated, these products can’t contain artificial or synthetic ingredients. In order to pass FDA guidelines, an artificial sweetener must undergo testing that shows it causes no harm at daily doses up to 100 times the acceptable daily intake, an amount estimated to represent a high volume of consumption or 23-75 sweetener packets per day depending on the product. Some recent controversy surrounding artificial sweeteners relates to concerns about possible negative effects on gut bacteria, craving for sweets, and glucose tolerance, all of which may promote weight gain and increase risk of diabetes and heart disease. In addition, individuals seem to respond differently.
As of now, it’s too early to draw conclusions, and research has yielded inconsistent results. There is evidence on both sides of the argument on whether the use of artificial sweeteners aid in weight loss, but any benefit is modest at best. In recent studies that show increased risk of obesity, a cause and effect relationship has not been established, and there are likely several factors contributing to these results.
- Reduce calorie intake
- Satisfy craving for sweets
- Don’t raise blood sugar
- Reduce risk of dental caries
- May unknowingly exceed safe levels
- May promote craving for sweets
- May disrupt gut microbiota
- May affect glucose tolerance
- May cause headaches in some individuals
- Moderate daily intake of artificial sweeteners is likely to be safe.
- Calorie and sugar intake is decreased when substituted for products containing sugar.
- Excess sugar consumption is known to increase risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
- Research shows both a positive and negative association between sugar substitute use and weight gain.
- Consuming both naturally and artificially sweetened products may promote a preference for sweets.
- Reducing all forms of added sugar enables a greater appreciation for the natural sweetness in whole foods.
The takeaway: Although they are considered safe in typical daily doses, limit consumption not only of artificial sweeteners, but all sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free but at what cost? Harvard Health Blog. Updated Dec 12, 2016. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030
Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes. Mayo Clinic website. Updated Aug 20 2015. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936
High-Intensity Sweeteners. FDA website. Updated Nov 2014. https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm397716.htm
Mann, D. Are artificial sweeteners safe? WebMD website. Updated Nov 21, 2017. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/are-artificial-sweeteners-safe#1
Webb, D. Diabetes management and nutrition guide: best sweeteners for people with diabetes. Today’s Dietitian. 2017; 19 (7):48. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0717p48.shtml
Helaine Krasner is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who takes great pride in helping our Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients achieve their health and weight loss goals.