Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes are often lauded as a way to (almost literally!) have your cake and eat it too, when it comes to sweet treats. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all pros with no cons. In fact, artificial sweeteners can have some very notable downsides, as we’ll explain in this comprehensive guide to not-so-sugary sweetness.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Generally speaking, artificial sweeteners are sugar replacements. They replicate (or attempt to) the sweet flavor we associate with sugar, but don’t have some of sugars other qualities. Many are zero or very low calorie, for instance, or don’t create the same blood glucose boosting qualities as sucrose (table sugar). Artificial sweeteners come from a variety of different sources and in numerous different formulations.
Types of Artificial Sweeteners
Sucralose (Brand name: Splenda)
Sucralose is one of the more (relatively) modern artificial sweeteners, having been introduced to the market in 1999. Sucralose quickly became popular because of the simple fact that, at least for most people, it lacks the chemical aftertaste that many people notice with other sugar substitutes. It simply tastes sweet.
It’s also heat stable, which some artificial sweeteners are not. That makes it ideal for home cooking. While it can’t fully replace all of sugar’s properties, it will keep its sweetness even at high cooking temperatures.
It’s created by replacing parts of natural sugar (sucrose) molecules with chlorine—specifically, certain hydrogen-oxygen groups. The resulting molecule, sucralose, is much sweeter than sucrose, by far—about 600 times sweeter. But it contains far fewer (effectively negligible, in regular serving sizes) calories.
Saccharin (Brand names: Sweet n’ Low; Sugar Twin)
With a name derived from the word saccharine, which itself means sweet, this heat-stable artificial sweetener is three to four hundred times the sweetness of sugar. Also known as benzoic sulfimide, there are various ways of producing the compound.
Saccharin has a long and storied history. It was first developed in 1879 by chemist Constantin Fahlberg, who would later become wealthy after producing it for sale. It was not commonly used, however, until sugar shortages threatened the communal sweet tooth during World War I.
Its popularity truly exploded, however, during the dieting crazes of the 1960s and 1970s, when its calorie free nature became more relevant.
Acesulfamepotassium (Brand names: Sunnett; Sweet One)
Chemists Harald Jensen and Karl Clauss weren’t looking to develop an artificial sweetener during their work in the Hoechst AG laboratory. In 1967, they were working with similar compounds for unrelated reasons, and Clauss accidentally tasted it after licking his fingers.
It’s heat stable, much like sucralose and saccharin, and is a common ingredient in combination with other artificial sweeteners in zero calorie soft drinks and in pharmaceuticals (where it is used to mask the taste of less pleasant active ingredients).
Aspartame (Brand names: NutraSweet; Equal)
This calorie free sugar substitute is a methyl ester of the dipeptide aspartic acid/phenylalanine. It’s 200 times sweeter than table sugar, giving it nearly no nutritive value when used as a sugar substitute. It is well known to be one of the sweeteners closest to sugar’s flavor profile. As a result, it’s often blended with other sweeteners to create a sweetness more like that of sugar.
However, it is not heat stable, and its amino acids may break down in high pH conditions as well. This limits its usefulness in several ways. It’s undesirable for many cooking and baking applications. Also, as many shelf stable products require a higher pH, aspartame is rarely used on its own in these products. Its stability can be improved with the addition of fat or maltodextrin. Some people report a bitter aftertaste, while others cannot detect it.
Stevia (Brand name: PureVia; Truvia)
Stevia is somewhat unique among sugar substitutes in that it is not technically an “artificial” sweetener. Rather than being created in a laboratory, this substitute is extracted from a plant. While extracts from Stevia rebaudiana have only become popular as a commercial sugar substitute during the past several decades, it’s been known in its native South America as a “sweet herb” for 1,500 years.
As far as its history in the West, it was first described in 1899 by Moises Santiago Bertoni, a Swiss scientist, but was not researched in depth until 1931. It wasn’t until 2008 that a retail version of the extract, highly purified, was found acceptable for GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.
Sugar Alcohols (Various types/names)
Sugar alcohol is an umbrella term for a class of polyols which contains a number of organic compounds including xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and erythritol. Sugar alcohols do occur in nature, and have in the past been obtained from natural sources. Today, however, most sugar alcohols are created from sugar, which has fewer hydrogen atoms than sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sugar, although their nutritive value is not negligible as with other artificial sweeteners (with the exception of erythritol, which is calorie-free). They are also slightly less sweet than sugar. However, they can be used to great effect to mask the bitter or unpleasant aftertastes of other sugar substitutes.
Why Do People Use Artificial Sweeteners?
There are many reasons that people use artificial sweeteners, including simply enjoying the taste. However, there are a few more common reasons for their use:
If you enjoy cracking open a frosty can of diet soda, you’re familiar with the zero calorie nutrition labels most of them sport. These fizzy treats maintain their sugar-like sweetness by replacing sucrose and fructose with artificial sweeteners. In doing so, they can save dieters hundreds of calories. The same can be said for reaching for the pink, blue, or yellow artificial sweetener packets instead of the sugar bowl when you fix up your coffee or tea, at home or in a café.
If you’re determined to trim your waistline, reducing calories can be an important step. If the marketing behind these faux flavoring agents seems too good to be true, that’s because… it is. While you get all of the flavor with none of the calories, there are other aspects of using artificial sweeteners to consider, as we’ll explore below.
Not all dieters are big fans of counting calories. There’s another way to trim your intake and as a result your pants sizes, however: cutting carbs. Atkins dieters, those tracking macros, and keto lovers, among others, consider their carb intake to be one of the most important parts of dieting. Most artificial sweeteners either don’t contain carbs.
In the case of sugar alcohols, which do contain carbs, they can often go uncounted because they are digested differently than other sources of carbohydrates. Either way, artificial sweeteners create some wiggle room for carby snacks without sacrificing sweetness.
Not everyone is thinking about the numbers on the scale when they reach for their preferred artificial sweetener. You’ll also find people with diabetes and other blood glucose control issues opting for substitute sweets over sugar. Most artificial sweeteners don’t affect blood glucose, and those that do have a less drastic effect on it than sugar.
For those that need to keep tight control over their blood glucose levels, artificial sweeteners can offer an alternative to going without sweets altogether, and can make it easier to keep their blood sugar within the range prescribed by their doctors.
What Should People Know About the Downsides of Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are marketed very cleverly. After all, you can’t visit a blog or click on a health video without hearing about the dangers of sugar. And artificial sweeteners—seemingly—neatly avoid many of the problems we encounter with sugar consumption. They’re especially helpful for avoiding the biggest complaints about the sweet stuff, namely calories, carbs, and glycemic response (effect on blood sugar).
And that’s great. However, it leads people to the erroneous conclusion that artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes, no more and no less. That is, that they offer all of the sweet, sweet flavor and none of the negative consequences.
But sweet or not, artificial sweeteners aren’t sugar, and they’re not just “sugar minus the downsides.” They might not have the same downsides as sugar, but they do have downsides all their own. And depending on how they affect you, or your reasons for choosing them, you may find that those downsides are just as bad or worse than the downsides associated with sucrose.
Plagued by Controversy
“If artificial sweeteners were so dangerous, they wouldn’t sell them,” you might be thinking. And you might be right… or you might not be. That’s the whole problem. Artificial sweeteners have always been, and continue to be, plagued by controversy. There are two big reasons for this, and both have to do with the research behind these additives.
- Questionable Studies
Many artificial sweeteners, including acesulfame potassium, sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame have a history of questionable research backing them up. In some cases, the problem lies with the funding for the research, as often the only studies available were funded by the manufacturers themselves. In other cases, there are just too many studies that conflict with one another. One study suggests cancer, another doesn’t, and so on.
- Lack of Long Term Studies
While some artificial sweeteners have been studied for half a century, others, however, are newer on the scene, or simply don’t have any long term studies. This is especially true of stevia and sucralose, as well as acesulfame potassium.
There’s also another issue, before we get into the more serious failings of various artificial sweeteners, however.
A Rose By Any Other Name…
Artificial sweeteners’ claim to fame is, of course, flavor. This is obvious in their marketing. Sweet, sweet, sweet. Indulgence, flavor, sweetness. They hammer this point home over and over again. And with a little bit of examination, it’s easy to see why. Artificial sweetener marketing companies prefer the term “sugar substitute,” because the entire premise of their campaigns is to get consumers to believe that they can simply replace sugar with a non-nutritive substitute. The sweet, sweet taste sugar, except without calories or carbs.
And to be fair, artificial sweeteners are pretty good at delivering on this promise. The problem with this promise is that sweetness is only one aspect of sugar. It’s perhaps the most obvious one, but when you really try to use artificial sweeteners to replace all of the different ways you use sugar, you’ll realize very quickly that sugar has plenty of other properties that these chemical replacements lack.
A great cookie isn’t a great cookie just because it’s sweet. It’s a great cookie because it’s crisp on the bottom, gooey in the middle, and a toasty golden brown on top. Guess what? That crisping, melting, and browning? That’s all sugar at work. None of the artificial sweeteners we’ve listed here can come close to approximating those properties.
And then there’s how they combine with other ingredients. We’ve already mentioned how aspartame is tricky to use in high pH and high temperature situations, but it’s not the only culprit when it comes to losing its savor in certain recipes. Whenever you swap out sugar for a substitute, make a small test batch first. The unusual aftertastes of some sweeteners can have disastrous effects in combination with other ingredients.
Let’s address the sweetness issue, too. Artificial sweeteners tend to be different concentrations of sweetness than regular sugar, which itself isn’t much of an issue because you just have to adjust for amount (which manufacturers are pretty good about coaching you through). But concentration isn’t the only thing we notice when it comes to satisfying our craving for sweets. Believe it or not, different sweeteners also have different onsets of sweetness and duration of sweetness on the tongue. This might seem minor, but when you’re trying to really replicate your sugary experience, it can be a real problem.
Finally, there’s the issue of quantity. It doesn’t much matter in a cup of coffee if you’re using a teaspoon of one sweetener versus a tablespoon of another. But when you’re baking or cooking something in which sugar is a major ingredient, you’re in trouble if you’re using a quarter cup of artificial sweetener instead of two cups of sugar.
Such substitutions are, of course, possible, but they’re much more complex than simply switching out sugar for one another ingredient. You might need three or four ingredients to compensate.
It would really be a shame if one of the major reasons people chose artificial sweeteners ended up being entirely wrong, wouldn’t it? Well, that’s what some studies suggest.
Many people choose sugar substitutes over the real thing because they want to lose weight. But several studies, including one that lasted nearly a decade with over 30,000 participants, and another of a year and with nearly 80,000 participants found that artificial sweeteners are actually correlated with weight gain.
One theory is that eating sweet stuff makes us crave more sweet stuff or at least more calories. While the sweeteners themselves don’t cause gain, indulging in so much sweetness can lead you to snack more.
Effects on Children
Another issue has less to do with what we know and more to do with what we don’t know. The effects of artificial sweeteners haven’t been studied on children, for obvious reasons—we can’t do dangerous studies on children. However, there have been animal studies that indicated that artificial sweeteners had a negative effect on fetuses. Surveys have also shown that artificial sweetener consumption may influence preterm delivery.
With the childhood obesity epidemic being arguably of even higher concern than adult obesity, it should come as no surprise that many parents are opting for low sugar snacks, which often contain artificial sweeteners. But we don’t know how these foods and beverages affect children.
Aspartame has one downside unique to it and artificial sweeteners derived from it. Some people suffer from a genetic condition called “phenylketonuria.” This causes the individual to be unable to metabolize phenylalanine, a molecule that is present in aspartame. This molecule can also be an issue for people with certain liver conditions or blood disorders. The end result of too much phenylalanine in the body? Brain damage.
And these are only the beginning. While there aren’t studies that support finding artificial sweeteners responsible for all of the below side effects, these are side effects reported by many consumers:
- Digestive Distress
- Sugar alcohols
- Saccharin (in users sensitive to sulfa drugs)
- Acesulfame potassium (after long term exposure to methylene chloride)
- Cancer Risks
- Sucralose (due to the presence of chlorine)
- Allergies (Skin irritation; breathing difficulties)
- Saccharine (especially for those sensitive to sulfa drugs)
- Sucralose (especially for those sensitive to chlorine)
- Other Side Effects
- Saccharin: Irritability, muscle dysfunction in infants/fetuses
- Aspartame: seizures, headache, spasms, dizziness, fatigue, memory loss, and more.
- Sucralose: palpitations, depression, chest pains, mood swings, problems with medication absorption
- Acesulfame potassium: mental confusion, headaches, depression, kidney problems, and vision issues
There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
The jury is still out, when it comes right down to it, on just how safe artificial sweeteners really are. Some people experience negative side effects even from small amounts. Others might not have a problem with occasional use, but can have severe side effects from too much of these sugar substitutes.
The problem with not truly understanding their long term side effects is probably more of an issue, however. Sucralose has boomed in popularity since its debut, but there are no long term studies on the substance at all. We simply do not know what might come of even moderate sucralose consumption after a period of years or decades, and that’s a bit scary.
It may still make sense for some people to indulge, moderately, in these food additives, but in many cases, you’re probably better off just cutting back on sugar without replacing it with something artificial. Choose a piece of fresh fruit over a candy bar instead of reaching for the sugar-free and artificially sweetened version. Your health (and likely, your cravings) will thank you.
If you do decide to keep indulging in artificial sweeteners, make your treats count. Enjoy them in moderation, in frequently, and try not to make it a habit. Drinking a 12 pack of diet soda a day does, after all, have other health risks aside from sugar associated with it.
As nice as it would be if there was such a thing as a truly consequence-free, calorie-free, carb-free, delicious substitute for sugar, we’re just not there yet. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Sometimes, the best things in life aren’t free, they require a little sacrifice. And your health is definitely something worth sacrificing for. Stay healthy out there!