Artificial sweeteners are low-calorie or calorie-free sugar substitutes often used as an alternative to sugar. They’re also called nonnutritive sweeteners. While these sugar substitutes provide the sweetness of sugar without the calories, their impact on overall health isn’t so sweet. Let’s first look at which artificial sweeteners are the worst offenders, and then we’ll cover the top 5 dangers artificial sweeteners pose to our health.
The 4 Worst Artificial Sweeteners
There are several artificial sweeteners, but here we are focusing on the 4 most commonly used and associated with negative health effects.
Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener commonly used as a sugar substitute in various food and beverage products.
It is made up of two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. Some individuals with a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot metabolize phenylalanine and should avoid consuming aspartame-containing products.
Aspartame can cause several symptoms and changes in the body. Some common side effects of aspartame include headaches, insomnia, neurological problems, and changes in the gut microbiome (if you’ve read any of our other wellness articles, you know by now how important the gut microbiome is to our overall health).
Brands of aspartame include Nutrasweet®, Equal®, and Sugar Twin®.
Acesulfame Potassium (acesulfame-K) is a calorie-free sweetener approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar and is commonly used in diet sodas, tabletop sweeteners, and other low-calorie or sugar-free products.
Acesulfame-K is associated with several detrimental health consequences, including weight gain, obesity, changes in the gut microbiome, and inflammation.
Brands of acesulfame-K include Sunett® and Sweet One®.
Sucralose is a calorie-free sweetener commonly used in diet sodas, tabletop sweeteners, and other low-calorie or sugar-free products. It is made by modifying sugar molecules and is approximately 600 times sweeter than sugar.
Some studies have linked sucralose consumption to digestive issues, such as bloating and diarrhea. Sucralose may negatively impact gut health by reducing the number of beneficial gut bacteria. It’s also been shown to cause an increase in inflammation, among other adverse health effects. When heated, sucralose loses its stability and can generate toxic compounds.
Brands of sucralose include Splenda®.
Saccharin is an artificial sweetener used as a sugar substitute in various food and beverage products. It is approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar and has no caloric value.
We’ll discuss more side effects below, but long-term use of saccharin is associated with impaired kidney and liver function, obesity, and hyperglycemic (high blood sugar) effects.
Brands of saccharin include Sweet and Low®, Sweet Twin®, Sweet’N Low®, and Necta Sweet®.
Products That Contain Artificial Sweeteners
It’s mind-boggling how prevalent these dangerous chemicals are in everyday foods and products. So many people don’t even think about the toothpaste they use daily or the medicine in their cupboard containing these artificial sweeteners, but unfortunately, they often do.
Common products containing artificial sweeteners include:
- Diet soda
- Chewing gum
- Liquid medicines, including cough syrup
- Powdered or chewable vitamins
- Protein powders
- Snack foods, including protein bars
- Pastries and baked goods
- ‘Lite’ or sugar-free beverages
- Alcoholic beverages
- Instant coffee
- Sugar-free syrups
- Salad dressings
These are just a few examples. Many other products contain artificial sweeteners, so it’s essential to read the ingredient list on any product you purchase to determine whether or not it contains these dangerous sweeteners.
5 Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are linked to many dangerous side effects, yet it’s often stated that there isn’t sufficient evidence to back up these negative health claims. Let’s look at the evidence for these 5 alleged dangers of artificial sweeteners.
1. Increased Cancer Risk
One of the most concerning dangers of artificial sweeteners is their potential link to an increased risk of cancer. A study published in 2022 sought to evaluate whether or not three of these sugar substitutes (aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose) increased the risk for cancer. The study consisted of data from 102,865 adults spanning from 2009 to 2021. The results indicated that aspartame and acesulfame-K were associated with an increased risk for cancer.
There have been concerns raised that artificial sweeteners may contribute to obesity. Since obesity is linked to 13 types of cancer, the above study looked at whether there was an association between these sweeteners and obesity-related cancers. The findings indicated there was an increase in risk between artificial sweeteners and obesity-related cancers.
2. Compromised Neurological Health
Artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, are connected to neurological health concerns such as insomnia, learning difficulties, headaches, migraines, seizures, irritability, anxiety, and depression.
There have also been case reports of heavy use of aspartame being linked to carpal tunnel syndrome and animal studies showing long-term use of aspartame causes harmful effects on the structure of the sciatic nerve.
Memory may also suffer by using these chemicals as sugar substitutes. Evidence shows that sucralose can cause a decrease in memory and executive functions (judgment).
3. Compromised Gut Health
The gastrointestinal system and the gut microbiome play significant roles in our overall health, influencing the risk for many chronic diseases. A growing body of evidence shows the detrimental impact of artificial sweeteners on gastrointestinal and microbiome health.
This study showed how aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin impaired the gut microbiome’s communication function, impacting the balance in this system.
A review study looking at the effects of sweeteners on the gut microbiota concluded that saccharin and sucralose cause imbalances in the gut microbiome that can lead to gut dysbiosis.
What’s more, the alterations in the gut microbiome were associated with changes in the metabolic pathways linked to glucose intolerance, which brings us to the next danger.
4. Increased Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome Risk
Artificial sweeteners are often consumed in an effort to reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity. However, these dangerous sugar substitutes appear to increase the risk of these conditions.
A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis of the long-term cardiometabolic effects of nonnutritive sweeteners found a higher incidence of obesity, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular events. One of the cohort studies included in the review showed a 67% increased risk for type 2 diabetes in people that drank diet soda daily.
Evidence indicates that artificial sweeteners lead to elevated insulin levels and insulin resistance, which are signs of metabolic syndrome and precursors to diabetes.
5. Increased Cardiovascular Risk
According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular (heart) diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide. There is evidence indicating artificial sweeteners contribute to this prevalent problem.
A study published in 2022 sought to evaluate whether or not artificial sweeteners increased the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The study consisted of data from 103,388 adults spanning from 2009 to 2021. The results indicated that aspartame was associated with an increased risk for stroke and acesulfame-K and sucralose were associated with an increased risk for coronary artery disease.
The 2017 review and meta-analysis mentioned above also found an association between artificial sweeteners and cardiovascular events.
Are There Better Options?
Thankfully there are much healthier options available! We covered 3 healthier alternatives to use as sugar substitutes in this article, all of which I use myself in different ways. I use one of them to sweeten my coffee, another is the sweetener in my protein powder, and the third is what I use if I do any baking.
The article also covers important information on erythritol, a sugar alcohol often used as a sugar substitute. New research indicates it may be associated with an increased cardiovascular risk.
The bottom line is that artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, acesulfame-K, sucralose, and saccharin, are dangerous chemicals that should be avoided. Evidence indicates these sweeteners increase the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, neurologic problems, and gut imbalances.
These artificial sweeteners are found in many products we use daily, including toothpaste, gum, and liquid medicines. Reading the ingredient list on labels is vital to ensure the products you’re using don’t contain them.
Luckily, plenty of healthier options are available, including the 3 healthy sugar substitutes we use!