Artificial Sweeteners- Too Good to be True?

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Artificial sweeteners are everywhere. We know the main sources: diet soda, sugar-free foods, and those little colored packets next to the sugar at Starbucks… But what are they actually doing to our bodies?

Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener, discovered accidentally in 1879. This sweetener gained popularity during World War I when sugar was rationed and by the end of World War II, it was used with regularity. In 1960, the FDA recommended that this artificial sweetener be used in moderation, as it was found to increase cancer risk in mice and the sweetener still carries this disclaimer today.

Aspartame was the next big discovery, occurring in 1965, and was also identified accidentally! Aspartame was approved for use in 1981 and is now known commonly as NutraSweet® or Equal®. There has been a significant amount of controversy over the safety of aspartame, specifically related to adverse events such as headaches, dizziness, numbness, muscle and joint pain, heart rhythm abnormalities and weight gain, just to name a few. Given the controversy, many studies have been completed to evaluate the safety of aspartame.  Following these studies, aspartame was labeled by the FDA as GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe when consumed in small doses. It should be mentioned however, that no long-term studies have been able to confirm the safety of aspartame and there continue to be more studies that show correlations between long term use of aspartame and cancer diagnoses; especially in men.

Sucralose (otherwise known as Splenda®) is one of the more recent discoveries, introduced to the market in 1999 and is now found in many sugar-free foods and beverages. In 2003 the recommended maximum sucralose intake was 15mg/kg/day for a lifetime1.  Following additional research regarding safety, this limit was decreased to 9mg/kg/day in 20082. Knowing that over 1500 products on the market contain sucralose, it is hard to be aware of your total intake, especially if your diet is high in processed foods. Research continues to determine the long term safety of sucralose; and the debate continues with no end in sight.

So what DO we know?

We know that increasing our use of sugar isn’t the answer. According to the American Diabetes Association, there were 29.1 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes in 2012, and 86 million have prediabetes. Unfortunately, those numbers continue to escalate, despite the increased use of non-caloric sweeteners.

It is also agreed upon that in general, we should avoid processed foods. According to the American Heart Association the average American eats 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day, due to processed foods while the recommended intake is only 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men. Food chemists have figured out that the human body enjoys sweet flavors, and by adding these to your favorite processed foods, you end up consuming more.

So aren’t artificial sweeteners the answer?

Unfortunately, until longer term research is provided to assure the safety of artificial sweeteners, it is probably a good idea to limit your daily use, both for your long term health and waistline. In 2010 Dr. Qing Yang from Yale University published a review of the literature in the Yale Journal of Biology in Medicine3.  This review supported the correlations between ingestion of artificial sweeteners and weight gain and he presents the substantial amount of data that is present which confirms these findings.  Additionally, his review further discussed the increase in appetite that is often associated with non-caloric sweeteners, as well as the increased cravings for other sweet treats and carbohydrates due to the non-caloric nature of these foods.

So what does this all mean?

In simple terms, try to get the majority of your foods and beverages in their natural, unprocessed state. Not only will you be avoiding artificial sweeteners, you will also avoid preservatives, excess sodium and other fillers. Eating “real food” will help your body re-acclimate to real flavors, and also send better signals to your brain to know when you are full and when you are actually hungry. Unprocessed foods are also generally higher in fiber, vitamins and minerals to give your body the building blocks it needs to stay healthy.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog and want to make more changes to your diet and exercise habits, Vita Physical Therapy & Fitness is here for you! Whether you are looking to lose weight, gain muscle, move better (or all of the above) you will be amazed at the gains you will make with Vita by your side!

Written by Colleen Baughn, OTR, CES


  1. 2003 Clinical Practice Guidelines – Acceptable daily intake of sweeteners .ca. Canadian Diabetes Association. 2003. Retrieved2015-08-03.
  2. 2008 Clinical Practice Guidelines – Acceptable daily intake of sweeteners (PDF). ca. Canadian Diabetes Association. 2008. p. S41. Retrieved 2015-08-03.
  3. Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2010;83(2):101-108.


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