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Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad for You? From Cavities to Cancer

Contributors:  

For all of us sweet tooths out there, the question ‘are artificial sweeteners bad for you?' is one of utmost importance. The answer? Well, it's a bit more nuanced than a simple yes or no.

Artificial sweeteners haven't been found to cause tooth decay, so that's a point in their favor, but some may alter your metabolism and even increase the risk of cancer.

In this article, we'll cover the following information:

  • Artificial sweeteners and their effect on teeth
  • Differences between artificial sweeteners and sugar
  • Negative health effects of artificial sweeteners
  • How to cut back on sweets altogether

Sugar is bad for teeth

We all know that dental decay or caries is something we don't want for our teeth. Caries refer to the process of decaying teeth and their consequences as well. For caries to manifest, there must be a contribution from 4 main players — your teeth/saliva, plaque, diet, and time.

When a diet is full of sugar, this greatly increases the risk of developing dental caries.

To hyperbolize a little, sugars in your mouth are laying in wait to be metabolized by bacteria, which play an integral role in the formation of dental biofilm (plaque). This also results in the creation of acid byproducts, which can actually demineralize your enamel and teeth in general.

Sugar, also known as sucrose, isn't just that fine-grained white stuff that you put in your coffee and tea, or use to bake cakes. There are many sugars that form part of the human diet. That being said, sugars can also be classified into two types of carbohydrates – simple sugars (monosaccharides) and disaccharides, which are two simple sugar molecules that are linked together.

Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruit and milk, and processed sugars are added to foods and beverages.

Fruit is good for you, so don't go cutting it out of your diet, but it contains sugar and acid, and both of these can stay on the surface of your teeth after you eat fruit, which contributes to bacteria development.

So really, all sugar can cause harm to your teeth, whether it's from natural sources, like milk and fruit, or processed and added to foods and beverages.

The difference between sugar and sweeteners

So what's the difference between sugar and artificial sweeteners? Well, to begin, artificial sweeteners are synthetic, created in labs, although they may come from natural substances like plants, and even sugar.

The main difference is that sugar has calories, and artificial sweeteners don't. Artificial sweeteners also tend to be much sweeter than sugar. In fact, according to the International Journal of Basic Clinical Pharmacology, saccharin, the first artificial sweetener developed and approved in 1878, was 300 times as sweet as sucrose.

Artificial sweeteners can be beneficial in some instances, like for:

  • Weight loss: These sweeteners essentially have no calories, so they won't contribute to weight gain in the same way as sugar. However, there are also studies that show that people who consume artificial sweeteners may have an altered metabolism, which is another important factor in maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Diabetes: Artificial sweeteners won't raise blood sugar levels, and thus in theory aren't harmful to people with diabetes.

Are artificial sweeteners better for your teeth than sugar?

The blanket statement is that artificial sweeteners are non-cariogenic, so they won't cause tooth decay. In fact, they might even help fight tooth decay. That's because sugar causes the pH in your mouth to drop, and an increase in acidity. Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, raise the pH level, which can decrease acidity and the bacteria that cause decay.

But if you are using artificial sweeteners to replace sugar in your drinks, don't think you're completely off the hook. You still need to be mindful of what you are drinking. Drinks that contain sweeteners like tea and coffee can still harm teeth because of their increased levels of acidity when consumed too often.

Is stevia bad for your teeth?

No, stevia on its own does not contribute to tooth decay. Additionally, it has no calories and can be 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It's also recognized as safe by the FDA, in its processed form.

Is sorbitol bad for your teeth?

Nope! Sorbitol is also non-cariogenic. Thus the bacteria in your mouth do not metabolize it, and no cavity-causing acids are released. Nor do you have to worry about enamel erosion with sorbitol.

Other health risks of artificial sweeteners

So artificial sweeteners aren't bad for your teeth, but that doesn't mean that they aren't bad for you. Let's have a closer look at the particulars.

Is sucralose bad for you?

Sucralose, more commonly known in your favorite neighborhood breakfast diner as Splenda, may have some negative health effects. For one, it might upset your microbiome. This is important because your microbiome aids with digestion and keeps your immune system up and running.

It's also not certain just how sucralose affects blood sugar and insulin levels. More research is needed on the subject. There are also studies indicating that sucralose could cause an increase in risk for obesity-related cancers.

Is aspartame bad for you?

Aspartame is definitely one to watch out for. It has been found to be associated with an increased risk of cancer. In fact, a study from NutriNet-Santé showed it was linked to a 22% increase in breast cancer. Additionally, it was found to cause a 15% increase in the risk of developing cancers related to obesity.

Is stevia bad for you?

In small amounts, stevia hasn't been found to be harmful to our health. But a study from the International Journal of Obesity found that people who were substituting sugar with artificial sweeteners compensated for that energy intake in other meals throughout the day. The main conclusion is that more studies need to be conducted on the health effects of stevia.

Tips to cut down on sweeteners

Unfortunately, your best bet is to just cut down on your need for sweeteners — artificial or not — altogether. There are a few ways you can go about doing this:

  • Sugar detox: In this CNN article, a nutritionist takes you through a step-by-step approach to a sugar detox, where in theory, after a few days, an apple will taste as sweet as candy. But reader beware — one of our Dentaly.org staff members tried this detox and did not find it to be a piece of cake.
  • Infused water: Try replacing your sweetened drinks with water infused with fruit flavors. One of the most popular brands that do this is LaCroix. The only problem is that these drinks are also often carbonated, which has its own negative effects on tooth health.
  • Eat fruit: Fruit is a healthy way to get that dose of sweetness you're craving. Rather than adding honey to your oatmeal, try slicing a banana over it instead.
  • Make little changes: You don't have to go cold turkey — start with making one daily swap. Instead of your afternoon soda, just bite the bullet and drink plain water instead. No, it's not as fun or tasty, but, if it were, then none of us would have weight problems or tooth decay.

Oral hygiene is the most important factor

As far as oral health goes, whether you eat sugar or artificial sweeteners, or you have no sweet tooth at all, the best way to protect your teeth is by keeping up a proper oral hygiene routine. Yes, folks – that means brushing twice per day, flossing at least once per day, and visiting your dentist twice a year for a checkup (or more if you are at a higher risk for cavities). Men especially need to take care, which you can read more about in our post about the gender gap and oral hygiene.

Check out our article on oral hygiene to make sure your habits are up to date.

Conclusion

The topic of artificial sweeteners and their benefits and risks is nuanced and requires more research. But, as of now, the findings are that they are not bad for your teeth. In fact, the opposite has been found to be true.

Where sugar decreases the pH level in your mouth, causing more acid production and cavity-causing bacteria, artificial sweeteners can raise or balance your oral pH level, staving off an increase in acidity and bacteria that cause decay.

There may be other risks to artificial sweeteners, however, including higher cancer risks. Ultimately, the best thing for your oral and overall health is to cut back on sweet treats altogether, artificially sweetened or not.

FAQs

Can sucralose cause tooth decay?

No. Sucralose, also known as Splenda, has not been found to cause tooth decay. It is non-cariogenic, and thus doesn't increase the acidity of your mouth, nor does it cause more cavity-causing bacteria.

Does aspartame cause tooth decay?

No, aspartame has not been shown to cause tooth decay. It has, however, been found in some studies to increase the risk of breast and obesity-related cancer.

Why are artificial sweeteners bad for you?

More studies are needed in this area to be certain, but some artificial sweeteners have been found to increase the risk of breast and obesity-related cancers. They may also alter your metabolism, which, if you are trying to lose weight, could be counterproductive.

Contributors:
Natalie used to work as a Community Health Worker and Health Insurance Navigator. She continues to follow her passion for connecting people with the healthcare they need by writing informative content about dentistry and medicine.