Note: This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated in 2018 to include the latest research. Several years ago, the evidence was limited, and I was hesitant to make a firm conclusion on the dangers of artificial sweeteners. However, I now believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners should not be included in a healthy diet.
Artificial sweeteners continue to be a controversial public health issue, and the research keeps coming. On one hand, many people are adamantly opposed to the use of sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), saccharin, and advantame because of the purported link with increased risk for cancer and other diseases. But on the other hand, they’re becoming increasingly popular as people try to reduce calorie consumption and lose weight.
There’s too much research out there to cover comprehensively in a blog article, but I’ll try to include the basics: Will artificial sweeteners give you cancer or other diseases? Do they actually help with weight loss? And ultimately, should you be eating them?
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The research on artificial sweeteners has always been lacking—until now. So, are artificial sweeteners healthy? Find out in this article, updated in 2018 with the latest information. #nutrition #wellness #chriskresser
Will Artificial Sweeteners Give You Cancer?
Artificial sweeteners were first tied to cancer risk in the 1970s after a study showed that a combination of saccharin and cyclamate (another early artificial sweetener) caused bladder cancer in lab rats. The mechanism behind these effects was later found to be specific to rats and not generalizable to other animals or humans (in these rats, comparable doses of vitamin C can also cause bladder cancer), and further studies demonstrated that neither sweetener is carcinogenic. (1, 2)
However, this study cast a shadow of doubt over artificial sweeteners, and thanks in part to the media’s penchant for blowing nutritional headlines way out of proportion, the reputation of artificial sweeteners has never recovered.
A later study suggested a link between aspartame consumption and brain tumors. The authors based this hypothesis on the fact that both brain cancer and aspartame consumption had increased since 1980—despite not knowing whether the people getting brain tumors actually consumed artificial sweeteners—and on a rat study where aspartame-supplemented diets led to the formation of brain tumors. (3)
This association has been more or less dismissed by the research community because three case-control studies have found no association between brain tumors and aspartame consumption, and subsequent animal studies haven’t been able to replicate the aspartame-induced brain tumors found in the original rat study. (4)
Artificial sweeteners have also been implicated in the development of lymphoma and leukemia, and one observational study found a weak link between artificial sweetener consumption and development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma in men, but not in women. (5) The study authors concluded that due to the inconsistency in their results, there isn’t likely a causal link, although it can’t be ruled out.
Artificial sweeteners have also been tested for associations with other cancers, including breast, pancreatic, stomach, colon, and endometrium, with no correlations found. (6)
Artificial Sweeteners Can Change Your Metabolic Health
Artificial sweeteners have also been tied to an increased risk for developing metabolic syndrome and related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Numerous observational studies have attempted to parse out a consistent association with disease risk, but for every study that has linked artificial sweetener consumption with metabolic syndrome, heart disease, or diabetes, there’s another that has found no association. (7, 8, 9)
Fortunately, we have meta-analyses, which serve to pool together similar studies and try to determine the overall effect. In July 2017, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a meta-analysis that picked apart the findings from seven randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and 30 cohort studies on artificial sweeteners. (10) In total, the studies followed more than 400,000 people for about 10 years. In the RCTs, artificial sweeteners had no significant effect on cardiovascular or metabolic disease risk. However, in the long-term cohort studies, consumption of artificial sweeteners was associated with a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular events, even after controlling for confounding variables.
Of course, observational studies cannot confirm causality, but another study, published in the journal Nature, showed that artificial sweeteners altered the gut microbiota and that this was causally linked to glucose tolerance in mice. (11) For the humans included in the study, even just one week of artificial sweetener consumption was enough to reduce glucose tolerance in half of the participants.
For a complete breakdown of how this works, check out my 2016 article “How Artificial Sweeteners Wreak Havoc on Your Gut.”
Pregnant Women: Avoid Artificial Sweeteners, Just to Be Safe
These studies have significant limitations:
- The associations are small and not linearly dose-dependent;
- Not all artificially sweetened beverages were accounted for; and
- Women who consume more artificially sweetened drinks also tend to smoke more and have higher BMI and lower socioeconomic status. (14)
The Big Question: Do They Help You Lose Weight?
For most people, the primary motivation for consuming artificial sweeteners is a desire to eat fewer calories and lose weight. But do artificial sweeteners actually help achieve that goal? Yet again, the evidence is mixed.
Many observational studies have found a positive association between artificial sweetener intake and obesity, but in this situation, reverse causality is particularly likely. (15, 16, 17, 18) In other words, while it’s possible that artificial sweeteners contributed to weight gain in these studies, it’s also possible that people who are overweight are more likely to choose diet beverages and other artificially sweetened foods in an effort to lose weight. We also have a decent number of clinical trials testing the weight loss effects of artificial sweeteners in humans, although many are too short term to have much practical significance.
In one study, overweight subjects were given supplements of either sucrose or artificial sweeteners for 10 weeks. (19) At the end of the trial period, subjects in the artificial sweetener group had experienced, on average, a reduction in weight, fat mass, and blood pressure, while subjects in the sucrose group gained weight and had increased blood pressure.
A study published in 2014 on weight loss and artificial sweeteners was surprisingly positive: over a 12-week period, participants who were instructed to drink 24 ounces of artificially sweetened beverages every day actually lost more weight than participants who were instructed to drink 24 ounces of water daily. (20) (It’s worth noting that this study was fully funded by the American Beverage Association.) Other trials have also shown successful calorie reduction and weight loss in participants who consumed artificial sweeteners (usually in the form of beverages). (21, 22, 23)
So what do we make of all this? Fortunately, the same meta-analysis I mentioned above of over 400,000 people also looked at weight loss. (24) When they pooled together the seven RCTs, they found no significant effect of artificial sweeteners on body mass index (BMI). On the other hand, when they pooled the cohort studies, consumption of artificial sweeteners was positively associated with increases in weight, waist circumference, and a higher incidence of obesity.
As I mentioned, artificial sweeteners’ ability to disrupt the gut microbiota can lead to weight gain, but that’s not the only mechanism involved here. These sweeteners can actually “confuse” your body and make it harder for you to shed extra pounds.
How These Sweeteners “Confuse” Your Body
For most of human history, sweeteners were inextricably tied to caloric density. Our sweet taste receptors evolved primarily to help us identify calorie-rich food sources. So imagine the confusing results when our taste receptors are bombarded with sweetness without that expected surge in calories.
Animal models certainly indicate that artificial sweeteners can impair the innate ability to regulate caloric intake. Rats who are fed with artificial sweeteners consistently gain more weight than rats who are fed with glucose or sucrose. (25, 26) Additionally, the rats don’t tend to lose the excess weight, even after their diets are switched back to glucose or sucrose to reestablish the normal connection between a sweet taste and calorie-rich foods.
Interestingly, rats who were given stevia solutions gained significantly more weight than the glucose-fed rats and similar amounts of weight to the saccharin-fed rats. (27) Rats fed with artificial sweeteners also develop an impaired ability to respond to sugar-containing foods. In one study, rats who had been fed artificial sweeteners were unable to compensate for the calorie content of a sugar preload by eating less chow afterwards, while rats who had been fed sugar-containing food compensated almost perfectly for the extra calories in the preload by eating less chow. (28)
Rats that have been conditioned with saccharin also display a reduced thermic effect in response to consumption of a caloric sugar-containing meal, as well as higher blood glucose, compared with rats who had been conditioned with glucose. (29, 30) Additionally, saccharin-fed rats secreted less GLP-1 (which is implicated in satiety and glucose homeostasis) when given a sugar-containing test meal. (31)
Unfortunately, although the animal evidence is fairly robust, evidence in humans is limited. However, two interesting studies that used MRI to measure brain responses to sucrose solutions indicate that artificial sweeteners may alter the brain’s response to sweet tastes in humans. In one study, people who regularly consume artificially sweetened drinks had higher reward responses to both saccharin and sucrose compared with people who don’t consume artificial sweeteners. (32)
Additionally, people who don’t consume artificial sweeteners had different brain responses to the saccharin and sucrose, while those who regularly consume artificial sweeteners responded the same to both sweeteners. Another study found that the amygdala’s response to sucrose consumption was inversely related to artificial sweetener use. (33) (The amygdala is part of the brain that is involved with taste–nutrient conditioning.)
Should You Be Eating Artificial Sweeteners?
To sum up, artificial sweeteners are extremely new to the human diet, and for modern, industrial foods, the operating principle should always be “guilty until proven innocent.” We’ve conducted what are essentially population-wide experiments with the introduction of other industrial foods (such as high-omega-6 vegetable oils) because the initial evidence seemed promising, and we can see how well that worked out.
Increasing evidence from animal studies and human observational studies points to a link between artificial sweeteners and an increased risk for:
- Glucose intolerance
- Weight gain
Observational evidence also suggests a link between artificial sweetener consumption and cardiovascular disease risk.
What has been your experience with artificial sweeteners? Do you avoid them? Include them? Share your thoughts in the comments!