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Why Everyone Should Say Goodbye to Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners

Equal, Sweet ‘n Low, Splenda, Nutrasweet, and other artificial sweeteners are extremely popular and are found in thousands of foods and in little packets on kitchen and restaurant tables everywhere. But new research in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism along with previous studies indicate that everyone should say goodbye to these no-calorie sweeteners for several important reasons you may not even realize.

What’s not so sweet about artificial sweeteners

If you believe no-calorie artificial sweeteners are safe and healthy, that they can help you lose weight or prevent you from gaining weight, and that they are good to use if you have diabetes, you would not be alone in these beliefs. However, a new study, as well as previous investigations, suggests quite the opposite.

Two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, so providing more products with artificial sweeteners should be a good thing, right? One area where consumption of diet products has risen steadily is diet drinks, with a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noting that diet beverage intake increased from 18 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2010 among women and from 14 percent to 19 percent among men during the same period.

However, drinking just one artificially sweetened beverage per day may increase your risk for a variety of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease. If you thought sugar-based drinks were associated with these same risks, you are right.

In fact, according to Susan E. Swithers of Purdue University, the author of a new study, the data to support claims that artificially sweetened drinks help with weight loss, weight gain prevention, and other benefits “are not very strong.” She also stated that “although it seems like common sense that diet sodas would not be as problematic as regular sodas, common sense is not always right.”

What might be considered common sense, however, is avoiding both artificially sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverages, since both types reportedly are associated with major health problems. The reason for this finding, according to the authors, seems to be that artificial sweeteners alter certain patterns in the brain’s pleasure regions, causing people who drink these beverages to not feel satisfied by the sweet taste.

In fact, when lab animals have been given artificial sweeteners, they have tended to highly desire more sweets. The result has been a tendency to overeat sugary, high-calorie foods and gain significant amounts of weight.

Thus the not-so-sweet news for anyone who has been consuming artificially sweetened beverages and foods is that “the intake of sugars needs to be expanded to limit intake of all sweeteners, not just sugars,” according to the study’s author. But there is more.

More health hazards from artificial sweeteners
Let’s look at some previous studies on artificial sweeteners and their potential hazards. Aspartame is a good place to begin, as there are reports that the chemical has a negative impact on brain function.

One new study from the Washington University School of Medicine looked at aspartame (e.g., Equal, NutraSweet) and its safety record. Investigators reported several concerns about aspartame:

  • Aspartame metabolizes into phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol, and excess phenylalanine has an impact on serotonin and dopamine levels, which are hormones involved in the regulation of appetite, mood, and sleep
  • One of aspartame’s metabolites, called diketopiperazine, has cancer-causing properties and plays a role in the development of tumors of the central nervous system. Thus use of foods and beverages that contain aspartame may pose a health hazard.

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Other dangers of using artificial sweeteners relate to an increased risk of developing conditions associated with type 2 diabetes, including glucose resistance and insulin resistance. In particular, investigators at Washington University School of Medicine looked at Splenda (sucralose) and its impact on glucose and insulin resistance.

In the study, researchers evaluated the effect of artificial sweeteners among severely obese people who did not have diabetes and who did not use artificial sweeteners regularly. They found that use of an artificial sweetener “was related to an enhanced blood insulin and glucose response.”

A Danish study evaluated the impact of both sugar-based and artificially sweetened beverages on pregnant women. Overall the investigators discovered that high intake of both types of beverages is associated with an increased risk of preterm delivery.

A possible link between artificial sweeteners and cancer has long been debated, with scores of studies indicating an increased risk of various types of tumors in animal studies. Far fewer studies have examined the association in humans.

One example in the latter category is a study that was published in the December 2012 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The Boston-based researchers looked at the intake of artificially sweetened and sugar-based sodas and the risk of leukemia and lymphoma in adults.

The investigators reviewed data from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, spanning 22 years of information. They found an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphomas and multiple myelomas among men (but not women) who consumed at least one diet soda daily when compared with men who did not drink diet soda.

The bottom line is that much controversy and debate surround the use of artificial sweeteners. Scores of studies in animals suggest their use can cause a variety of cancers, allergic reactions, and even neurological problems, yet authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the European Food Safety Authority, among others, have continued to declare these synthetic products are safe for human consumption.

A number of health experts and consumer advocate groups, such as Dr. Andrew Weil and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have pointed out the health dangers of artificial sweeteners. Weil, for example, explains in a Prevention article that these synthetic sweeteners have “never been shown to help anyone lose weight, and some of them are downright bad for you.”

Weil also warned that “aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose all have been shown to increase the risk of some health problems, including obesity, headaches, and some types of cancer.” Are these products you want to feed to your children and yourself?

Evidence against the safety of artificial sweeteners continues to build, despite resistance from food industry manufacturers and others with a financial interest in their remaining on the market. Perhaps it’s time for everyone who is concerned about their health to say goodbye to artificial sweeteners.

Prevention magazine
Schernhammer ES et al. Consumption of artificial sweetener- and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012 Dec; 96(6): 1419-28
Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism 2013; doi:10.1016/j.tem.2013.05.005

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