Is artificial sweetener bad for you?

When trying to reduce sugar in your diet, you might turn to artificial sweeteners to satisfy your sweet tooth. They’re an easy way to enjoy sugar-free sweetness in everything from baked goods and ice cream to yogurt and beverages.

These sweeteners have become a topic of debate, and many ask — are artificial sweeteners healthy, or is there a better alternative?

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners vs. sugar — and who should avoid sugar-free sweeteners.

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

Food manufacturers make artificial sweeteners, also known as sugar substitutes, from chemicals in a lab. They’re compounds that provide a sweet flavor to foods or drinks without the calories or carbohydrates that sugar adds.

You can use them to replace sugar in baking or sweeten foods and beverages. Food manufacturers also use artificial sweeteners to reduce the sugar content in a wide variety of packaged foods, including:

  • Baked goods.
  • Breakfast cereals.
  • Coffee drinks.
  • Ice cream and frozen desserts.
  • Jams and jellies.
  • Protein powders.
  • Pudding or gelatin desserts.
  • Sodas and other soft drinks.
  • Yogurt.

Artificial sweeteners and their common brand names include:

  • Acesulfame-K (sold under the brand name Sunett® or Sweet One®).
  • Advantame (no brand name).
  • Aspartame (Equal® or NutraSweet®).
  • Neotame (Newtame®).
  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low®).
  • Sucralose (Splenda®).

Besides these, two commonly used zero-calorie sugar substitutes come from natural, plant-based ingredients. While still made in a lab, these are less processed than the above artificial sweeteners:

  • Monkfruit (Nectresse®, Monk Fruit in the Raw®, PureLo®).
  • Stevia (Truvia® and PureVia®)

Finally, there are low-calorie sweeteners called sugar alcohols (although they don’t contain alcohol). They come from fermented sugar molecules and are as sweet or slightly less sweet than sugar. They also have fewer calories and carbohydrates than sugar.

Sugar alcohols are in sugar-free candies, gums, and some baked goods. They include:

  • Erythritol
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

These sweeteners appear on food labels in the ingredients list under their generic or brand name.

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Artificial Sweeteners vs. Sugar

Sugar isn’t necessarily bad for you. It occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, and it’s a vital form of energy. When digested, sugar turns into glucose which your body uses for fuel.

But most people eat more sugar than they need. Many foods have more added sugar than you might think. Over time, excess sugar contributes to weight gain and increases your risk of health problems like:

  • Cancer.
  • Diabetes.
  • Heart disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of your daily calories. Other expert groups, like the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, recommend even less — 5% to 6% of daily calories. That means if you eat 2,000 calories a day, you should have no more than 25 grams to 50 grams of added sugar.

Artificial sweeteners can help you cut excess sugar and reduce calories while enjoying a sweet taste. Scientists have researched and tested artificial sweeteners extensively. The FDA has reviewed the research and said these sweeteners are safe when used in reasonable amounts, based on the available science.

When used in moderation, these sweeteners aren’t harmful to most people and may have some benefits.

  • Artificial and naturally derived zero-calorie sweeteners don’t raise your blood sugar, and sugar alcohols have a minimal impact on blood sugar.
  • They don’t promote tooth decay.
  • They may help some people wean off sugary sodas or soft drinks.

But just like sugar, it’s easy to go overboard and eat too many foods with these sweeteners. Many foods that contain artificial sweeteners aren’t healthy choices, yet many people eat more of them because they’re sugar-free.

When Is Artificial Sweetener Bad for You?

Although they’re safe for most people in moderation, artificial sweeteners aren’t for everyone.

  • People with a rare genetic disorder called PKU (phenylketonuria) must avoid the sweetener aspartame because they can’t metabolize it.
  • Some people report reactions like headaches when they eat an artificial sweetener.
  • Sugar alcohol sweeteners (especially sorbitol and xylitol) can cause digestive side effects like gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

Artificial sweeteners should help you control your weight since they don’t add any calories to foods or beverages. And they should help prevent or manage diabetes since they don’t raise your blood sugar.

But research shows mixed results. Some studies on people who use these sweeteners daily suggest that they might increase the risk of:

  • Diabetes.
  • Heart disease.
  • Metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar).
  • Weight gain

People who are trying to lose weight or are at risk for these health problems should use artificial sweeteners cautiously. Because of the potential downsides linked with long-term use, the World Health Organization says not to use sugar substitutes for weight control.

Healthier Alternatives

Natural sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup, still add sugar and calories. But they are less processed and provide small amounts of healthy vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Whether you choose table sugar, a natural sweetener, or a sugar substitute, the healthiest way to eat any sweetener is in moderation. Many people find the more sweet foods they eat, the more they crave. So try to gradually cut back on sweet foods and beverages and retrain your tastebuds with these tips:

  • If you add sweetener to your morning coffee or tea, gradually reduce the amount you add until you don’t need any sweetener. Eventually, you’ll get used to the less sweet flavor — and even prefer it.
  • Instead of ordering a sweet muffin or pastry for breakfast, try something savory, like an egg sandwich, a few days a week. Or make a batch of overnight oats sweetened with a drizzle of honey and some fresh berries for a grab-and-go breakfast.
  • Rather than following a meal with dessert, satisfy your sweet tooth with a bowl of fresh fruit or a handful of dried fruit mixed with nuts. Fruit provides natural sugar plus fiber and other nutrients.
  • Skip soda and sweetened soft drinks and drink more water. Try fruit-infused sparkling water or iced herbal tea, like elderberry or ginger, for flavor without sweetness.

Eating less sugar and artificial sweeteners is a good goal for everyone. Check the Nutrition Facts and ingredients labels at the grocery store, and choose those with little or no sweetener. If you need help, work with a dietitian who can help you cut back on sugar and find healthier alternatives.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Low-Calorie Sweeteners. LINK

US Food and Drug Administration. How Sweet It Is: All About Sweeteners. LINK

World Health Organization. WHO Advises Not To Use Non-Sugar Sweeteners for Weight Control in Newly Released Guideline. LINK

USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. LINK

American Heart Association. Added Sugars. LINK

National Library of Medicine. Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children. LINK

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