There are few foods that have a more controversial reputation than sugar, and you’ve likely heard sweet treats are bad for your health and should be limited. Instead, a laundry list of better-for-you sugar alternatives promise to deliver the same sweetness without the added carbs and calories. But recently, a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) warned against using artificial sweeteners and suggested long-term consumption has its risks.
The WHO indicated artificial sweeteners should not be used to control bodyweight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable disease. The report went on to say that continued consumption can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even overall mortality in adults. That being said, artificial sweeteners are generally recognized as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration, so the risk of serious health problems is fairly low, says Stephanie Wells, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and the founder of Thyme to Go Vegan Nutrition Services.
So, what’s the deal? Should you wipe your kitchen clean of artificial sweeteners? POPSUGAR talked with registered dietitians to learn the health risks of artificial sweeteners and whether they’re actually bad for you.
What Is Artificial Sweetener, Anyway?
“Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are used to provide a sweet taste to foods and beverages with little to no calories,” says Jenn Baswick, RD, a registered dietitian and the founder of The Intuitive Nutritionist. “They are typically quite sweet, so a small amount of artificial sweeteners can replace quite a large amount of sugar.”
You may be familiar with those little packets of artificial sweetener at restaurants and coffee shops, but these sugar alternatives are more common than you may think. “Artificial sweeteners are often found in diet sodas and foods marketed as having ‘no added sugar’ or being ‘keto friendly,'” Wells says. They are also typically found in baked goods, frosting, pudding, chewing gum, ice cream, yogurt, bottled fruit juice, bread, fat-free salad dressing, and condiments like ketchup, she adds.
Artificial Sweeteners: Side Effects and Health Risks
Side effects from eating artificial sweeteners aren’t common. However, some people may be more sensitive to the ingredient and experience headaches or worsened mood after consuming aspartame, in particular, Wells says. Others report digestive upset like gas, constipation, and bloating after consuming foods with certain artificial sweeteners, but it’s inconclusive on whether these side effects are actually caused by the artificial sweeteners themselves, Baswick adds.
Now, when it comes to potential health risks, the findings are preliminary, and a lot more research is needed. Some studies have suggested potential links between certain artificial sweeteners and conditions like metabolic disorders, cancer risk, or altered gut microbiota, Baswick says. Specifically, saccharin and sucralose intake were associated with higher blood-glucose responses and altered gut microbiome function in adults, she explains.
Another study found that high consumption of artificial sweeteners, in general, was associated with an increased risk of cancer. That said, the research did not clearly show a cause-and-effect relationship, Baswick explains. “The overall research base currently lacks conclusive evidence of significant health risks in moderate consumption of artificial sweeteners,” she says.
There may also be a link between artificial sweeteners and inflammation in the gut, according to a 2021 study. Again, more research is needed, but if true, artificial sweeteners could exacerbate symptoms of digestive conditions like Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease, Wells explains.
The bottom line is that more analysis is needed to make any conclusive claims about the impact of artificial sweeteners on long-term health risks. “It’s quite difficult to be absolutely certain about nutrition findings in research, and these findings are not necessarily showing cause and effect,” Baswick says.
Artificial Sweeteners vs. Sugar
The main difference between artificial sweeteners and sugar lies in their composition, calorie content, and sweetness level, Baswick explains. “Artificial sweeteners are chemically modified compounds made to be low- or zero-calorie substitutes for sugar that provide sweetness,” she explains. In other words, artificial sweeteners are created in labs, while sugar is more naturally found in plants like sugarcane, corn, and beets, Wells says.
It’s also crucial to remember that sugar is not evil or inherently bad. “Sugar contains calories and contributes to an individual’s total energy intake,” Baswick says. “It may seem appealing to many that artificial sweeteners offer a way to reduce calorie intake, but it’s important to remember that sugar provides a source of energy and can be part of a balanced diet.”
So, is sugar better than artificial sweeteners? It’s hard to say. “Small amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners in an overall well-balanced diet are probably not going to be problematic, but relying too heavily on these ultraprocessed foods may crowd out more nutrient-dense foods known to reduce the risk of chronic diseases,” Wells says. “The WHO clarified that the evidence for their new recommendation is weak, so the true impact of artificial sweeteners on our health remains to be seen.”
The Most Common Artificial Sweeteners
If you want to keep an eye out for artificial sweeteners in your foods, Baswick and Wells say the following are most common:
- Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
- Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K or Ace-K, Sweet One)
- Neotame (Newtame)
- Monk-fruit extract
So, Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad For You?
There’s no clear answer and it’s difficult to say with certainty that something is absolutely “bad for you,” Baswick says. “Of course, with anything we want to be mindful of consuming it in excess, and the same is to be said about artificial sweeteners,” she explains. “I would say that food is not something to be feared, sugar is not evil, and it can be consumed as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.”
Plus, it’s important to remember the new WHO recommendations are based on research with low overall certainty, Wells explains. “Artificial sweeteners can be very helpful for people with a serious sweet tooth who are trying to eat less sugar and for people with active type 2 diabetes looking to manage their blood sugar,” she explains. “My main takeaway is that small amounts of artificial sweeteners and sugar in the diet are not likely to cause health issues in the context of a balanced diet containing plenty of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.”
Image Source: Getty / HUIZENG HU