How serious is your (artificial) sweet tooth?
You've probably heard claims about how artificial sweeteners can e better for you than cane sugar but also that they might cause cancer and other serious diseases... yikes, how are you supposed to make a decision based on those claims? Having trouble fighting your love for soft drinks and can't decide between regular Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Coke Life? How serious is your (artificial) sweet tooth?
Artificial sugars are a low-calorie alternative to cane sugar, or sucrose, that is used in many products we are regularly exposed to. These products are marketed by brands as being better for your health, since we can no longer pretend that sugar is good for us in the doses we consume it in. Of course, our lives would be easier if soft drinks, packaged desserts, flavored yogurts, and the many more foods we love to eat were as healthy for us as veggies and hummus. Unfortunately they simply aren't and we can't drink Fanta as if it were freshly pressed orange juice. From one Fit Girl to another, I have done some reading and will attempt to clear things up about artificial sweeteners.
Types of artificial sweeteners
At present there are six different forms of artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, sucralose and advantame. These substances are chemically produced and are also referred to as "nonnutritive", meaning that they have no nutritional value or calories but are simply used to make your food taste sweeter. These sweeteners are often found in fruit juices, soft drinks, canned fruit, frozen deserts, and anything labelled as "diet", "light", or "sugar-free". You will surely notice the difference in calories in the regular and "diet" versions of the same product- think of Coke Zero with less than one calorie per 330ml can. Yet, these products taste just as sweet as their sucrose-sweetened counterparts. This is because artificial sweeteners can be up to 13,000 times sweeter than cane sugar! How is that even possible?! Indeed, neotame can be anywhere between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than plain old sugar, which means that you need a much smaller amount in your food to make it just as sweet (hence, way less calories).
While this may all seem too good to be true, don't go grabbing packets of saccharin to sweeten your afternoon tea without reading about some of the effects these sweeteners can have on your body. The debate about artificial sweeteners is a hot one especially because the FDA and CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) have approved these products as safe for consumption. Also a common element of recent attempts to make unhealthy habits healthier, long-term effects of these substances are simply not yet known since the products have not been in our diets for very long.
They probably don't cause cancer
A few of the artificial sweeteners have been associated with cancers such as bladder cancer (saccharin) and brain cancer (aspartame) in the past. In fact the US Congress required that all foods containing saccharin mention, "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health" until 2000, when the sweetener was removed form the carcinogen list. Since the majority of tests on these artificial sweeteners are run on rats and not on Fit Girls, the substances have actually never been proven to cause cancer in humans. We all know that rats can't do burpees so it makes sense that they might metabolize artificial sweeteners a bit differently than humans.
It seems that the sweeteners cannot be said to cause cancer, but that doesn't mean that you should rush to the store and stock up on them. While cancer is extremely serious, many other conditions that greatly affect your life are more likely to develop with the consumption of artificial sweeteners.
But they're not great for you either
Your body and brain are powerful and complex and so is their reaction to sugars and artificial sweeteners. We won't go into the details, but this article gives a good description if you're interested. Since the sweeteners are nonnutritive you are essentially consuming calorie-less food or drinks which might temporarily satisfy your sweet tooth but is likely to lead to increased cravings for sweet foods later on. This means that the artificial sweeteners cannot fool your brain! Instead, they might be priming your brain to want to consume more sugary foods as they are more satisfying for your brain, no matter how many times you tell yourself that you've had enough servings of your favorite soft drink.
The fact that artificial sweeteners are used in products advertised as better for you than their sugary counterparts might play another trick on you- it might prevent you from associating sweet food and drink with caloric intake, something that you should try to limit the consumption of. Don't be fooled into choosing another artificially sweetened product over fresh, nutritious food, something that has been perceived as an issue with these items. Some studies have even revealed that artificial sweeteners could cause addiction, and being dependent on something like Diet Coke cannot be good for your health as much as we wish it could be.
Another issue with sweeteners is that our consumption of unhealthy foods, be it salty or sweet, is much higher than is healthy for us. The tests run on these artificial sweeteners were run with relatively small amounts of them, so it is unknown what a large amount of these chemical sweeteners will do to our bodies in the long run. The consumption of diet sodas was associated with significant increases in the risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, diseases which artificial sweeteners were designed to help prevent in the first place.
It appears that candies, drinks, and other foods labeled as "diet", "light", or with "sugar-free" may end up having harmful effects on your eating habits and eventually on your health after all.
Verdict: moderation is key
Like most things in life, artificial sweeteners are most likely safe to consume every once in a while in small amounts. They will not immediately make you inflate like a balloon or cause uncontrollable consumption, but you should not consider them as healthy for you either. These sweeteners are ideal if you are not able to consume cane sugar or if you are trying to change your diet to eventually cut out or decrease your intake of sweetened foods. They can serve as a useful tool to making positive changes to your lifestyle, but keep in mind that it can be harmful if you let yourself get carried away (yes, 5 packets of Splenda in your daily Matcha latte is too much).
If you feel like your sugar cravings are not satisfied, try eating a juicy mango or a bowl of fresh strawberries and remember how tasty (and nutritious) naturally sweet foods are! Just listen to your body and be mindful of what you choose to consume, because you deserve to have a body that is taken care of so that you can dance, squat, and laugh as much as possible and not be hindered by some silly chemicals.
Sources: www.health.com, www.esquire.com, www.health.harvard.edu