Are you turning to artificial sweeteners because you want to cut down on calories in your diet? If yes, you’re not alone. A wide variety of foods and beverages on the market including soft drinks, gums, ice-creams, fruit juices, candies and baked goods are marketed as sugar-free. These foods and beverages mostly use artificial sweeteners as a substitute to sugar.
Even though artificial sweeteners are pretty common nowadays, yet many people don’t know: what exactly they are? Are they really safe, or at least less hazardous than sugar? More importantly, how do they impact on your insulin levels?
Unfortunately, science doesn’t have all the answers yet. So, no matter you just want to lose weight or have a healthy overall lifestyle, the safest bet is to avoid all sorts of sweeteners and sugar, or use natural sweeteners such as agave nectar, date sugar, fruit juice concentrate, honey, and maple syrup. However, this is virtually impossible so let’s get to know the artificial sweeteners.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners aka intense sweeteners (because they’re many times sweeter than sugar) are synthetic sugar substitutes, however, they’re usually derived from naturally occurring substances such as herbs, plants or even sugar.
What really makes them an attractive alternative to sugar is that they add zero calories to your diet. Also, because of their higher intensity, a much smaller amount as compared to sugar is enough.
Types of artificial sweeteners
FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners:
Aspartame is the most common artificial sweetener, especially used in diet sodas, and is composed of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Its popular trade name is NutraSweet, while it’s sometimes also called Equal. It can be 160 to 220 time sweeter than sugar and, as per FDA, shouldn’t be consumed more than 50 mg per kilogram of your body weight.
Sucralose is commonly known by its trade name Splenda, and is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. FDA recommends taking no more than 5 mg Sucralose per kilogram of your body weight.
The two trade names of Acesulfame Potassium (or simply Acesulfame) are Sunnet, and Sweet and Safe Sweet one. It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar and FDA recommends taking no more than 15 mg per kilogram of your body weight.
Neotame is commonly known as Made by NutraSweet, and is the most powerful artificial sweetener. It can be 6K to 13K times sweeter than sugar. FDA recommends taking only up to 0.1 mg Neotame per kilogram of your body weight.
Saccharin has two trade names: Sugar Twin and Sweet’N Low. It’s 300 times sweeter than sugar and 5 mg per kilogram of body weight is the acceptable daily intake.
Artificial sweeteners vs sugar
Comparing artificial sweeteners with sugar is not simple, as different sweeteners have different advantages and disadvantages, and different people can react differently to each of them. In short, if your plan is to cut down on your calorie intake, then stay away from sugar, however, if you care more about the taste quality, sugar is generally the winner.
“Sugar has arguably had as great an impact on the environment as any other agricultural commodity,” shows a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This is mainly because its cultivation results in soil erosrion and also the use of large amount of chemical products across the tropics and beyond.
Studies have shown that sugar not only adds a lot of calories to your diet but also poses health hazards, ranging from weight gain to cancer. But there is little, highly contested evidence of harm coming from artificial sweeteners as compared to sugar. In the past, artificial sweeteners were not considered safe because of some inadequate research studies. For example, a study conducted in 1970s showed that consuming large amounts of saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats. In 2000, however, this study was discredited and the FDA removed the warning labels from saccharin. However doctors still recommend children and pregnant women should not to use the sweetener in excessive amounts.
Although these sweeteners, if consumed in excess, might have some side effects, no study has yet confirmed that they’re life threatening. They can, however, be detrimental to our environment in a different way. Sucralose, for example, as reported by UNC, is hard to break down for bacteria in the human digestive tract. So, it leaves your body through waste and enters the sewerage systems, and scientists are unsure of its long-term effects. Likewise, Aspartame is usually produced by fermenting corn and soy, two of the biggest genetically engineered corps in the United States. Environmentalists believe that too much tampering with nature can have unexpected and hazardous effects in future.
Scientists at Purdue University, Indiana have come up with an interesting hypothesis on how fake sugar can mess up with your body. They believe that artificial sweeteners effectively fool your body by pretending to give it real food, but when the body doesn’t get it, it gets confused on how to respond. So, it starts to functional abnormally, and when you eat real sugar, your body will not release the hormones that regulate blood sugar and blood pressure. So instead of helping your weight loss, consuming artificial sweeteners could prove to be counterproductive.
However, the bottom line is that science has proved that sugar has drastic effects on your body, but it has yet to prove the same for artificial sweeteners.
Effects of artificial sweeteners on insulin
Insulin is the fuel in your body that helps it to digest whatever you eat. It’s made by beta cells inside the pancreas and its release depends on the type and amounts of food that you eat.
Insulin resistance is a hallmark of almost every chronic disease, particularly obesity and type 2 diabetes. Other issues that can be triggered by imbalanced insulin levels are low blood sugar episodes, headaches, lethargy, cardiovascular disease, and more. And if you’re dieting, your efforts can simply go down the drain if your insulin is out of balance.
Several studies have been conducted to establish a link between artificial sweetener consumption and insulin levels. Interestingly, some studies suggest a link does exist while others deny it altogether.
For example, in a 2011 study, researchers at Imperial College London, UK, randomly studied volunteers who consumed 50 ml of either water, glucose-polymer, sucralose, or a modified sham-feeding protocol of sucralose. After every two hours, readings were taken for appetite ratings and plasma GLP-1, PYY, insulin and glucose. The 4-day study proved that, “sucralose ingestion did not increase plasma GLP-1 or PYY and oral stimulation of sucralose did not elicit a cephalic phase response for insulin or GLP-1.”
On the flip, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine carried out a study in 2013 that revealed sucralose can actually impact your insulin response. 17 severely obese people who usually didn’t consume a lot of artificial sweeteners and were not diabetics were tested, and the results indicate that sucralose isn’t inert. “It does have an effect,” said first author M. Yanina Pepino, PhD, research assistant professor of medicine. “And we need to do more studies to determine whether this observation means long-term use could be harmful.”
The volunteers had an average BMI of 42 i.e. 12 points higher than the threshold of obesity, because artificial sweeteners are usually recommended to obese people. The researches wanted to find out if the combination of sucralose and glucose affected insulin levels and/or blood sugar levels, so they gave the participants either sucralose or water before a glucose challenge test.
Each participant was tested twice: first after drinking water followed by glucose and then after drinking sucralose followed by glucose. Their insulin level rose about 20% higher when they drank sucralose before glucose than when they drank water and glucose. Their blood sugar also peaked higher when they had consumed sucralose.
Artificial sweeteners are many times more potent than sugar and are used in very small quantities. This means they don’t increase calorie intake but they can possibly tamper with the receptors on your tongue, tricking the body into thinking that you have eaten something sweet, thus long-term usage may cause hormonal imbalance. What’s more, since your body is getting fewer calories, you’ll need to eat more before you’re satiated. Because of these hypotheses, many people believe artificial sweeteners might be counter-productive when it comes to weight loss.
Most previous studies giving artificial sweeteners a clean bill of health studied the sweeteners on their own, but in real life you never consume a sweetener by itself; you use it in your tea, coffee, or whatever food you want to sweeten. So, the recent studies, such as the one carried out at Washington University School of Medicine, that suggest artificial sweeteners could mess with your insulin response, make more sense. How different artificial sweeteners impact insulin levels in humans is yet to be fully understood, however, it’s just a matter of time before further studies unveil the truth. If you are looking to actively lose weight then our advice would be to gradually reduce both the amount of both sugar and sweeteners in your diet.