Well Being

True or False: Artificial Sweeteners Are Harmful to Your Health

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Nutritionist and Foodtrainers founder Lauren Slayton

A reader named Christi sent me the following thought-provoking question about this recent Blisstree post: 10 Foods You Think Are Healthy and Nutritious But Aren't:

I read your post about several foods that we commonly mistake for being healthy. I saw the image of the fat-free, sugar-free pudding and read the description. I understand that this food probably has little to no nutritional value, but I'm curious why you think sugar substitutes are unhealthy? I've always tried to stay away from sugar substitutes, and also do without sugar when possible. (I stopped putting sugar in my coffee a few years ago.) But I never really understood why it would be unhealthy to have sugar substitutes.

Great question, Christi. When I was studying for my R.D. exam many moons ago, I memorized a lot of information and random facts – much of which I've since forgotten. But one of the things I retained is the knowledge of an eating disorder known as pica. Those who suffer from pica eat non-food substances such as dirt, soap, or chalk; it’s quite serious. I’ve always likened eating fake foods such as sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose), with “no nutritional value” to this disorder. So if we don’t suffer from pica, what’s the appeal of food impersonators?

If you think the appeal of artificial sweeteners is weight loss, I'm sorry to say that the increased use of sweeteners in the U.S. hasn’t made us any thinner. Many artificially sugar-free foods are equal to or only slightly lower in calories than their regular counterparts. Furthermore, a study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that artificial sweeteners don't “turn on” satiety signals the way that sugar (protein or fat) does, which can encourage those eating them to just eat more. And a Purdue University study showed that artificial sweeteners may actually disrupt the body’s natural ability to gauge calories. In short, sweeteners don't satisfy us, and may affect our ability to become satiated from other foods.

Still reaching for that little yellow, pink, or blue packet? Artificial sweeteners also have been linked to headaches and migraines (aspartame and sucralose, or Splenda, are most often connected), gastrointestinal distress, insomnia, and heightened PMS. (No thanks!) Plus, as Planet Green points out, as I stare at my recycling bin, there must be a better use for the tons of paper that goes into making the millions of packets of this fake stuff.

Sure, the FDA declares that these sweeteners are safe, but remember that this is a governmental organization that also finds genetically-modified foods and artificial colorings safe. But I've read plenty of studies that don’t make artificial sweeteners sound so safe.* The truth is that these sweeteners are questionable at best, and only time will tell exactly how safe they are. No study tests long-term effects or the result of using multiple sweeteners over a lifetime. I, for one, will take being skeptical over being sick every time. I wouldn’t feed artificial sweeteners to my children and therefore won’t eat them myself. I'll save my “chemical” rations for my hair color.

* Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Esposti DD, Lambertini L. Aspartame induces lymphomas and leukemia in rats. European Journal of Oncology, 2005; 10(2): 107–116.

* Lim U, Subar AF, Mouw T, et al. Consumption of aspartame-containing beverages and incidence of hematopoietic and brain malignancies. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention, 2006; 15(9): 1654–1659.

Lauren Slayton, M.S. R.D., founder of New York City’s Foodtrainers, has more than a decade of experience as both a dietician and nutritional counselor. Offering one-on-one sessions on weight and nutrition management, Foodtrainers helps clients create, record, achieve, and maintain personal health goals. For those in need of grocery shopping guidance on a budget, Foodtrainers also offers an affordable program, Market Foodtraining. Check out Lauren’s Foodtrainers blog and follow Lauren on Twitter: @foodtrainers.