Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND
Artificial sweeteners are popular among dieters and diabetics alike. Because they don’t contain sugar or calories, they’re often recommended for people who have high levels of blood sugar and those who are overweight. This conventional wisdom is being turned upside down by studies showing that fake sweeteners can actually promote the diseases they’re marketed to prevent including prediabetes, type two diabetes, weight gain, and obesity.2 Artificial sweeteners have also been linked to changes in gut flora,3 cardiovascular disease,2 and certain types of cancer.4
So far six artificial sweeteners have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: saccharin (sold as Sweet’N Low), sucralose (sold as Splenda), aspartame (sold as Equal or NutraSweet), acesulfame potassium (also known as Ace-K), neotame (chemically similar to aspartame), and advantame.1 These sugar substitutes are found in foods labeled “light,” “diet,” and “sugar-free” which can include baked goods, snack bars, fruit spreads, yogurt, ice cream, soft drinks, candy, and chewing gum, among other processed products. Here are five reasons everyone should avoid them.
#1 | Artificial sweeteners raise insulin levels
Artificial sweeteners may not raise blood sugar levels but they do raise insulin levels. When we eat foods that taste sweet, whether or not they contain any real sugar, the pancreas releases insulin.5 In fact, consuming fake sugars has been shown to have the same effect on insulin levels as consuming real sugar.6 High levels of insulin trigger hunger and food cravings, prompt the body to accumulate fat, increase inflammation, and stimulate the growth of cancer cells.7 Over time, high insulin levels promote weight gain8 and the development of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension,9 and blood clots.10
#2 | Fake sugars make us fat in ways we don’t completely understand
While we do know that artificial sweeteners promote weight gain by raising insulin levels through their effects on sweet taste receptors, there’s more that we don’t know. Research studies have demonstrated that fake sugars promote overweight and obesity in ways that are completely unrelated to taste buds.11 Scientists are still uncovering the exact mechanisms but they are believed to be involved with influencing the expression of genes that regulate the growth of fat cells and the release of fatty acids.
#3 | Artificial sweeteners hijack your taste buds
Artificial sweeteners are exponentially sweeter than real sugar. According to the FDA, saccharin, aspartame, and ace-K are about 200 times sweeter than table sugar.12 Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter, neotame is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter, and advantame is 20,000 times sweeter.12 When your palate becomes used to these exceptionally sweet tastes, you lose the ability to appreciate naturally sweet flavors, which leads to the overconsumption of natural sweeteners and the continued consumption of fake sweeteners. Studies confirm that artificial sweeteners trigger sugar cravings and promote sugar dependence.13
#4 | Fake sweeteners change bacterial balance in the digestive tract
Our bodies contain 10 times more microbial cells than human cells and 200 times more microbial genes than human genes. This collective community of microorganisms and their genes, called the microbiome, is essential for the normal development and function of important body systems. They protect us from disease-causing bacteria, manufacture essential nutrients like vitamins and short chain fatty acids, help digest our food, break down environmental toxins, modulate the immune system, help regulate inflammation, influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, and play an important role in appetite, satiety, fat accumulation, and energy usage. Studies show that artificial sweeteners change the pH of the gastrointestinal tract14 and alter the composition of intestinal bacteria.3 These changes to the micobiome interfere with normal blood sugar metabolism and promote the development of type 2 diabetes mellitus and obesity.3
#5 | Artificial sweeteners compromise natural detox mechanisms
Detoxification is a complex process, and there are many mechanisms that must work together to make it happen. Detox requires low levels of blood sugar and insulin to prompt the body to release fatty acids from fat cells along with environmental toxins that are stored there. Once toxins are released, they travel through the bloodstream to the liver where chemical reactions turn them into compounds that the body can easily excrete. Artificial sweeteners interfere with detox in three different ways: They raise insulin levels, which prevents toxins from being released from their storage sites. They alter gut bacteria that help break down toxins. And they’ve been shown to alter the expression of enzymes in the liver that helps the body eliminate toxins.14
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the healthiest diets are low in all forms of sugar. However, if you have to sweeten something, opt for real sugar over artificial sweeteners. Or, better yet, choose foods that are naturally sweet and those with proven health benefits, like whole fruit, small amounts of raw local honey, or 70 to 85 percent dark chocolate.
Sarah Cimperman, ND is the author of the new book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings. She graduated from NCNM in 2002 and has a private practice in New York City. Her expertise has been featured on Fox News and Huffington Post and in Natural Health magazine, Whole Living magazine, and the Well Being Journal, among other publications. Dr. Cimperman also writes two blogs, A Different Kind Of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. High-Intensity Sweeteners. [Web page.] FDA website. http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm397716.htm. Accessed 10 March 2015.
- Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2013;24(9):431–441. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772345/
- Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, Zilberman-Schapira G, Thaiss CA, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 2014;514(7521):181-6. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v514/n7521/full/nature13793.html
- Bosetti C, Gallus S, Talamini R, Montella M, Franceschi S, et al. Artificial sweeteners and the risk of gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers in Italy. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention. 2009;18(8):2235-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19661082
- Al-Saleh AH, Corkey B, Deeney J, Tornheim K and Bauer E. Effect of artificial sweeteners on insulin secretion, ROS, and oxygen consumption in pancreatic beta cells. The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. 2011;25:530.1. http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/content/meeting_abstract/25/1_MeetingAbstracts/530.1
- Ferland A, Brassard P, and Poirier P. Is Aspartame Really Safer in Reducing the Risk of Hypoglycemia During Exercise in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes? Diabetes Care. 2007;30(7):e59. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/30/7/e59.full
- Boyd DB. Insulin and cancer. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2003;2(4):315-29. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14713323
- Polyák E, Gombos K, Hajnal B, Bonyár-Müller K, Szabó S, et al. Effects of artificial sweeteners on body weight, food and drink intake. Acta Physiologica Hungarica. 2010;97(4):401-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21138816
- Landsberg L. Insulin resistance, energy balance and sympathetic nervous system activity. Clinical and Experimental Hypertension. Part A, Theory and Practice. 1990;12(5):817-30. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2208753
- Meigs JB, Mittleman MA, Nathan DM, Tofler GH, Singer DE, et al. Hyperinsulinemia, hyperglycemia, and impaired hemostasis: the Framingham Offspring Study. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000;283(2):221-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10634338
- Simon BR, Parlee SD, Learman BS, Mori H, Scheller EL, et al. Artificial Sweeteners Stimulate Adipogenesis and Suppress Lipolysis Independently of Sweet Taste Receptors. Journal of Biological Chemistry. 2013;288(45):32475–32489. http://www.jbc.org/content/288/45/32475.full
- United States Food and Drug Administration. Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for use in Food in the United States. [Web page]. FDA website. http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm397725.htm. Accessed 3 March 2015.
- Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2010;83(2):101–108. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892765/
- Abou-Donia MB, El-Masry EM, Abdel-Rahman AA, McLendon RE, and Schiffman SS. Splenda Alters Gut Microflora and Increases Intestinal P-Glycoprotein and Cytochrome P-450 in Male Rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. 2008;71(21):1415–29. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18800291