If you have a sweet tooth and you're trying to give up sugar, you may be asking: Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?
Artificial sweeteners are a type of sugar substitute that’s popular with people who want to reduce their sugar intake or avoid sugar altogether. Some to help with weight loss, others to help with reducing tooth decay and dental cavities. Sounds great, right?
Over the years, they’ve been blamed for everything from cancer and multiple sclerosis to skin rashes and migraines. You may also have heard that artificial sweeteners have their place. So, what's the truth in the matter? Are artificial sweeteners bad for you and why?
This article will answer the following questions about artificial sweeteners, so you can make an informed decision on whether to have them or avoid them:
- What are artificial sweeteners?
- How do artificial sweeteners compare to sugar?
- Are they bad for you?
- Should you avoid them?
- Do artificial sweeteners cause tooth decay?
Keep reading to learn more about artificial sweeteners, and whether they are a good idea or not.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that add sweetness to food without the calories or carbohydrates of regular sugar. If a type of food or drink is labelled sugar-free, it usually contains an artificial sweetener.
They’re popular because they help reduce the number of calories you consume without sacrificing sweetness. However, it's important to note that not all artificial sweeteners are calorie-free.
The most well known artificial sweetener is saccharin, which was discovered in 1879 by Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg at Johns Hopkins University.
They discovered its use as a sweetener by accident when they left a bottle of saccharin out overnight and it had become extremely sweet. This led to saccharin being manufactured commercially as a sugar alternative because it was much cheaper than sugar cane.
What are some of the most common artificial sweeteners?
As mentioned above, saccharin is probably the most widely known artificial sweetener as it was discovered first. However, there are a few others to be aware of, including:
- Acesulfame K
How do artificial sweeteners compare to sugar?
The main difference between artificial sweeteners and sugar is that artificial sweeteners don’t have the calories and carbohydrates that sugar does. The two are completely different and have different effects on the body.
According to Harvard Health, excess sugar intake can cause a range of different issues, including weight gain, chronic inflammation, higher blood pressure, diabetes and liver disease.
These issues may not seem to be much of a cause for concern, but according to Harvard Health, they are pathways to dangerous health issues such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and more.
Artificial sweeteners do not cause some of these issues, and can actually help to prevent tooth decay and control blood sugar fluctuations and weight gain when used as a sugar replacement in moderation.
There are, however, some studies that have found that sugar substitutes may stimulate your appetite and cause you to want to eat more.
The following video shows the differences between artificial sweeteners and sugar:
Let’s look at some studies surrounding artificial sweeteners, and get an idea of whether they are bad for you.
Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?
According to Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute, artificial sweeteners don't cause cancer. They claim there have been numerous studies showing that artificial sweeteners are safe for consumption.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rigorously tests sweeteners before they can be used in food and drink. They have also recognised that the artificial sweeteners xylitol, sorbitol and sucralose can help reduce tooth decay for improved oral health, and control blood sugar levels.
One study found that sugar substitutes can help patients reduce the occurrence of dental caries. The researchers also did not find any evidence that artificial sweeteners could cause acid erosion or tooth decay.
Another study found that there may be some issues related to consuming artificial sweeteners. However, the research was inconclusive due to the differences between humans and the animals being tested. The study concluded that more research needs to be done on the effects of artificial sweeteners.
This study found that there may be a link between artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of cancer. It concluded that, although their studies did not support using artificial sweeteners to replace sugar, studies on a larger scale may need to be done.
The consensus is that artificial sweeteners are safe for human consumption in moderation. Some studies suggest they may cause some digestive issues, but this is potentially because of individual sensitivity to sugar alternatives.
Let’s look a little more in-depth at some of the common sweeteners that are found in food and drinks in the UK.
Is sucralose bad for you?
Swapping to sucralose (Splenda) from sugar may help with tooth decay and enamel erosion, but there is evidence to suggest it can stimulate your appetite. This means that although you think you are reducing your calories by having sucralose instead of sugar, you may find that overall you are more hungry.
On the other hand, if you have diabetes and need to monitor your sugar intake, sweeteners like Splenda can help.
Some studies say that sucralose might impact the good bacteria in your gut by almost halving it. The good bacteria in your gut help to maintain a healthy immune system, so anything that affects it may not be that good for you.
Is aspartame bad for you?
Aspartame is another commonly used artificial sweetener, but recently it has come under fire for adverse health effects both short term and long term.
This study found that short-term aspartame can have adverse effects on some biochemical and haematological parameters. This study was done on mice so further research is needed to see how this relates to humans.
Another study found that long-term health effects from aspartame can impact the sciatic nerve. Again, further study is needed on humans as this study was done with mice.
Other studies show that consuming aspartame may cause certain cancers, including lymphoma, leukaemia, urinary tract tumours, and neurological tumours. However, there is limited evidence and further research is needed.
Are artificial sweeteners bad for your teeth?
Artificial sweeteners are non-cariogenic, meaning they do not contribute to tooth decay. New studies show that stevia may even help balance pH levels in the mouth, and can help fight against dental cavities.
Artificial sweeteners are common ingredients in food, but they may not be completely safe. So it's worth considering if sugar substitutes are something that you want to consume.
While some experts argue that sugar substitutes are bad for us, others say they might be an important tool in weight loss. There is still no clear consensus.
There is evidence to suggest that swapping out sugar for artificial sweeteners will help to reduce tooth decay and dental cavities, and enable those with diabetes to better monitor their sugar intake. Stevia in particular may even help to balance the pH of your mouth and help fight against tooth decay.
So what's the bottom line? Artificial sweeteners are safe in small amounts. But it's best to use them only occasionally and in limited quantities.
NHS. The truth about sweeteners. Consulted 29th April 2022.
Science Alert. Effects of Short-term Consumption of Aspartame on Some Biochemical and Hematological Parameters in Female Swiss Albino Mice. Consulted 29th April 2022.
NCBI. Effect of long term-administration of aspartame on the ultrastructure of sciatic nerve. Consulted 29th April 2022.
Harvard Health. Fight Health-Robbing Inflammation! Consulted 29th April 2022.
NCBI. Role of Sugar and Sugar Substitutes in Dental Caries: A Review. Consulted 29th April 2022.
NCBI. Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits. Consulted 29th April 2022.
Science Daily. Study suggests association between consuming artificial sweeteners and increased cancer risk. Consulted 29th April 2022.