Danielle Pavliv, Laura Gottschalk, PhD, and Amanda Chu
When people want to treat themselves to something sweet without having to treat themselves to a larger pants size too, they often reach for low-calorie, artificial sweeteners. But do artificial sweeteners actually help you lose weight? The answer is not necessarily. As for their safety, the answer becomes more complex.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
The most popular types of sugar substitutes in the US and many other countries are artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are typically made in a laboratory and don’t contain calories or supply your body with energy, vitamins, or anything else nutritious. These sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar, so less is needed to reach the same level of sweetness as something containing sugar. Sweeteners can be used in the home for baking and cooking, and they can also be found in many processed food products including soft drinks, candy, and canned foods.
There are six types of artificial sweeteners currently approved by the FDA.
Two “natural” sugar substitutes have also been approved by the FDA. Brand names such as Truvia, PureVia, Enliten (Steviol glycosides), Nectresse, Monk Fruit in the Raw, PureLo (monk fruit extract) are all made from plants. But before being sold in the store, they must first be highly processed in a laboratory. So don’t be fooled into thinking that the word “natural” means that it comes straight from nature to your table.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Help You Lose Weight?
It makes sense that eating and drinking fewer calories by switching to sugar substitutes should lead to weight loss. However, there are several studies that found that people who drink diet drinks weigh more than those who don’t . People who drink diet sodas, however, may be more likely than others to be trying to keep their weight down, or they may indulge themselves by eating more high-calorie foods since they “saved calories” with their diet soda.
A better way to study if artificial sweeteners help people lose weight is known as a randomized controlled trial. People in the trial are randomly put into groups—one group uses artificial sweeteners while the other group uses sugar. Then, the two groups can be compared to see if using artificial sweeteners had a different impact than sugar. However, randomized clinical trials are very difficult to conduct on artificial sweeteners because they are in so many different types of food.
In 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) scrutinized scientific reviews of the effect of artificial sweeteners on weight control and concluded that artificial sweeteners do not help people lose weight.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
A 2020 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism by a group of Yale researchers found that the consumption of the common artificial sweetener sucralose (found in Splenda, Zerocal, Sukrana, SucraPlus) in combination with carbohydrates can turn a healthy person into one with high blood sugar.
You may have heard claims that artificial sweeteners could change hormone levels , increase the risk of heart problems , and cause higher rates of type II diabetes. An important 2022 French study of more than 100,000 adults followed for a median of 9 years found that consuming artificial sweeteners was associated with a very slight increased likelihood of experiencing newly diagnosed cardiovascular conditions such as heart attacks and stroke. The study identified three artificial sweeteners that seem to cause the greatest increases. People taking aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) were more likely to have a stroke, while people taking acesulfame potassium (Sunnett, Sweet One) or sucralose (Splenda) were more likely to develop coronary artery disease.
The reasons why artificial sweeteners might harm cardiovascular health are unclear. However, experts suggest that these sweeteners could increase inflammation, metabolic disruptions, and alterations in the gut microbiome and blood vessels. That may increase the chances of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure.
For many years, there were concerns about whether artificial sweeteners cause cancer. A recent study by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has found a possible link between aspartame and liver cancer. While the risk of cancer from aspartame is considered low for most consumers, those who consume large quantities could be harmed. In addition, children may reach the daily recommended limit more easily due to their lower body weight. In fact, a 44-pound child would only need to drink approximately four cans of Diet Coke per day to exceed the maximum recommended limit. That is why it is so important to be very careful to consume as little aspartame as possible, especially for children, to reduce the chances of developing cancer.
Should You Use Artificial Sweeteners?
Does the increased risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease from consuming large amounts of sugary drinks may outweigh the risks posed by artificial sweeteners? That is still now clear, but based on the research so far, it makes sense to avoid the largest drink sizes, whether sugary or artificially sweetened. There is growing evidence that consuming even small amounts of artificially sweetened beverages may result in similar health risks to sugary drinks, and they apparently do not help with weight loss. Finding healthier alternatives, such as making your own coffee or tea, or flavoring water with slices of lemon, lime, watermelon, or apple, is a good strategy for your health. And, keep in mind that you should never consume more calories in other food because you “saved” some by drinking a non-caloric drink!
All NCHR articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
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- The World Health Organization. WHO advises not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control in newly released guideline. May 2023. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/15-05-2023-who-advises-not-to-use-non-sugar-sweeteners-for-weight-control-in-newly-released-guideline
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