Artificial sweeteners (non-nutritive sweeteners) have made their way into many households as part of low-calorie beverages or sugar-free products. They are also widely used as individual sweeteners to mimic the sweet taste of nutritive sweeteners such as table sugar (sucrose), honey, maple syrup, or molasses.
Research suggests that artificial sweeteners may aid in the short-term management of prediabetes and diabetes and contribute to weight loss through the reduction of calories in various ‘low-sugar’ or ‘low-calorie’ foods and beverages. More research needs to be conducted on the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners and their effect on the body.
Overall, there is inconclusive evidence linking artificial sweeteners with long-term adverse effects on the human body. More research is required to establish this link formally.
Not all artificial sweeteners are created equal and may impact our bodies differently. This article depicts the benefits and drawbacks of artificial sweeteners and evaluates their function in our diets.
About artificial sweeteners
What are they, and what are they made of?
- Artificial sweeteners (also referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners, high-intensity sweeteners, sugar substitutes and low-calorie sweeteners) are non-caloric substances used in place of high-calorie, nutritive sweeteners such as sucrose (table sugar) or honey to sweeten products. The primary purpose of using sweeteners in products is to reduce the sugar content or calorie content of foods or drinks.1
- Unlike table sugar or honey (a nutritive sweetener that contains food energy), artificial sweeteners are mostly labelled as non-nutritive, containing little to no energy. Artificial sweeteners mimic the effect sugar has on taste.
Some of the approved sweeteners include: 2
|Sweetener||Brand||Multiplier of sweetness intensity compared to sucrose (sugar)||Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI)milligrams per kilogram body weight per day (mg/kg bw/d)|
|Acesulfame K||Sweet One®Sunett®||200x||15|
|Saccharin||Sweet Twin® Sweet'N Low®||200-700 x||15|
- Artificial sweeteners are made of various substances:
- Aspartame, for example, is made up of two amino acids, a modified phenylalanine (which gives the sweet taste) and aspartic acid, which are both components of proteins in our body and foods.3
- Saccharin, on the other hand, is made in a laboratory and is a product of oxidation of either o-toluene sulfonamide or phthalic anhydride.4
Are there any benefits to artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners can be used to sweeten our daily beverages, such as tea or coffee or as part of the ingredients in a variety of products, such as cakes, biscuits and yoghurts. Using artificial sugars in place of sucrose gives the product its low-sugar and low-calorie properties, which can be beneficial.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 13% of the world’s population is obese and this figure continues to grow. A European Regional Obesity Report indicated that one in three adults in the WHO European Region is obese or overweight.5 The most common cause of obesity or weight gain is an energy imbalance between energy consumption and energy expenditure. In other words, the amount of calories consumed exceeds the calories expended by the body, resulting in weight gain.
Artificial sweeteners are used to lower the calorie content of various food products by replacing the nutritive sugars within the product. Whilst there are around 30 calories in 10 grams of table sugar, there are virtually none in most sweeteners.
Many individuals use sweeteners as a stepping stone to reducing their sugar intake and therefore, calorie intake. It is advised to add a balanced diet and exercise to the lifestyle. To aid with weight loss, a balanced approach should be considered, as opting for low-sugar items alone may not be healthy or sustainable.6,7
Artificial sweeteners are not only used for weight loss through the reduction of sugar (and therefore calories) in products; they are also beneficial for individuals with diabetes. Since the main goal of prediabetes and diabetes management is blood glucose control, artificial sweeteners are useful in mimicking the sweet taste of sugar without impacting blood glucose levels. Artificial sweeteners help to reduce sugar intake and reduce the glycaemic load in the diet.6
Common sources of artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are commonly found in desserts such as cakes, ice creams and biscuits. They are also widely used in beverages that are often labelled as ‘diet’, ‘zero’ or ‘sugar-free’. Artificial sweeteners are a lot sweeter than regular sugar, and so are used in smaller quantities in products to create a similar sweet taste to normal sugar.
Effects of artificial sweeteners on the body
Artificial sweeteners may be a good transitional product when it comes to sugar reduction and weight loss when combined with a calorie deficit. However, there is insufficient evidence to support weight loss or weight maintenance long-term.8
Some sweeteners can have a laxative effect, especially if combined with other triggering foods. Artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, can accumulate in the gastrointestinal tract and harm the gut bacteria. As a result, levels of water and nitrogen gas may be increased, which may lead to diarrhoea.9
A lot of sugar-free drinks are highly acidic; they may be fruit-based and contain citric acid or phosphorus, which may increase dental erosion and sensitivity. However, more long-term studies are required to establish the effect artificial sweeteners have on teeth.
It has also been suggested that artificial sweeteners may stimulate appetite, consequently leading to a higher consumption of calories, which in turn may lead to weight gain.1
Overall, there is inconclusive evidence linking artificial sweeteners with long-term adverse effects on the human body. More research is required to formally establish this link.
Are artificial sweeteners worse for you than sugar?
All artificial sweeteners are created differently and are trialled before becoming available to the public. The human body may respond to various sweeteners differently hence why it is important to conduct these trials to avoid possible risks. The low-calorie properties of artificial sweeteners mean that they barely contribute to total daily calorie intake and may be good substitutes for sugar for individuals trying to lose weight.
What are the dangers of artificial sweeteners?
Overweight or prediabetic individuals may opt for processed food or drinks containing artificial sweeteners to manage their weight and blood glucose levels, consequently becoming reliant on these foods as part of their daily diet. This may result in a diet high in processed, artificially sweetened beverages. In addition, any weight loss achieved may be offset if individuals begin replacing the lost calories with other sources of food.10
A study demonstrated an association between some cancers and high consumption of certain artificial sweeteners. However, there are inconsistencies in the data, and this association is not causal, meaning that further long-term research is still required.11
Previous animal studies have linked artificial sweeteners such as saccharin with cancer. However, Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute confirmed there is strong evidence suggesting that artificial sweeteners are safe for consumption.1
Which is the safest artificial sweetener to use?
Stevia comes from the whole plant (Stevia rebaudiana) and is the least processed artificial sweetener. For this reason, a lot of research points to Stevia as the safest option.12
Based on current research, all artificial sweeteners that are currently used in products or individually are classed as safe if they are consumed within their recommended daily intake value. More long-term research may be required to identify the safest or most beneficial sweetener for our health.
Is it bad to take artificial sweeteners every day?
Artificial sweeteners undergo safety assessments conducted by The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). They are only used in products when they are deemed safe for consumption, as per specific EFSA criteria.1 As part of this, an acceptable daily intake is established, which is an upper limit of artificial sugars safe for daily consumption.
Overall diet quality should be assessed by a professional to ensure a healthy and balanced approach to various food groups. It is important to ensure individuals do not rely completely on reduced sugar products as the majority of them tend to be processed products, which tend to be unhealthier.13
The current research indicates that artificial sweeteners are safe to consume and can be particularly beneficial for glucose management and weight loss. For some individuals, artificial sweeteners may be seen as a ‘stepping stone’ in trying to minimize their sugar intake. It can reduce the sugar intake in your everyday drinks, such as teas and coffee or meals, such as oats or cereals, without you having to eliminate these foods from your diet. Sweeteners can contribute to building sustainable dietary habits whilst still enjoying your usual foods without feeling as though you are following a restrictive diet. More research, however, is required to draw any concrete conclusions about the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners on the body.
- The truth about sweeteners [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2022 [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-types/are-sweeteners-safe/
- Nutrition C for FS and A. Additional information about high-intensity sweeteners permitted for use in food in the United States. FDA [Internet]. 2020 Feb 20 [cited 2022 Nov 13]; Available from: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states
- Aspartame | efsa [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/aspartame
- Saccharine: what is it, safety, and more [Internet]. Healthline. 2019 [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/saccharin-good-or-bad
- HPS Website - WHO report highlights the dangers of obesity [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.hps.scot.nhs.uk/publications/hps-weekly-report/volume-56/issue-18/who-report-highlights-the-dangers-of-obesity/#:~:text=On%203%20May%202022%2C%20the,these%20levels%20continue%20to%20grow
- Obesity and overweight [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
- Chattopadhyay S, Raychaudhuri U, Chakraborty R. Artificial sweeteners – a review. J Food Sci Technol [Internet]. 2014 Apr [cited 2022 Nov 13];51(4):611–21. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3982014/
- Health effects of the use of non-sugar sweeteners: a systematic review and meta-analysis [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.who.int/publications-detail-redirect/9789240046429
- Sucralose: safety and evidence [Internet]. News-Medical.net. 2017 [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.news-medical.net/health/Sucralose-Safety-and-Evidence.aspx
- Strawbridge H. Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost? [Internet]. Harvard Health. 2012 [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030
- Debris C, Chazelas E, Srour B, Druesne-Pecollo N, Esseddik Y, Szabo de Edelenyi F, et al. Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk: Results from the NutriNet-Santé population-based cohort study. Zheng W, editor. PLoS Med [Internet]. 2022 Mar 24 [cited 2022 Nov 13];19(3):e1003950. Available from: https://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003950
- 5 natural sweeteners that are good for your health [Internet]. Healthline. 2021 [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/healthy-natural-sweeteners
- Sugar, sweeteners and diabetes [Internet]. Diabetes UK. [cited 2022 Nov 13]. Available from: https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/enjoy-food/carbohydrates-and-diabetes/sugar-sweeteners-and-diabetes