Artificial sweeteners have been a hot topic for some years now but are they really that bad for you? There are many conflicting views due to some negative findings from studies conducted in the past. These studies however were performed on animals and more recent experiments have shown contrasting results, nevertheless, artificial sweeteners have been unable to entirely shake their bad reputation.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are a form of sugar replacement used to sweeten food and drinks. They are considerably sweeter than table sugar (by a few hundred times!), so much less is needed to produce a sweetening effect. Compared to table sugar (sucrose), artificial sweeteners provide less energy per gram because the digestive system does not absorb them as effectively.
Artificial sweeteners can be used in numerous foods e.g. cakes, dairy products, chewing gum, jam and chocolate. There are many different types of artificial sweeteners which can provide different flavours e.g. those used in Coke Zero are different to those used in Diet Coke.
Table 1: Common artificial sweeteners, their shelf name and the products they are often found in
The above table was sourced from Diabetes Australia1
There are 2 types of alternate sweeteners – ‘non-nutritive sweeteners’ and ‘nutritive sweeteners’. In this article we are discussing artificial sweeteners which fall under the category of ‘non- nutritive sweeteners’. The main differences are summarised in the table below.
|Non-nutritive sweetener (artificial sweetener)||Nutritive sweetener (sugars, caloric sweeteners)|
How do we know that artificial sweeteners are safe?
Before the government declares an artificial sweetener as safe for consumption, the following questions must be answered:
- How is it produced?
- In what quantity will it be consumed by the average person?
- Are there any potential negative effects on health?
- What foods and/ or beverages will use it?
To satisfactorily answer the above questions, the sweetener must undergo rigorous testing and meet the criteria of the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Authority. If it is proven to be safe, the government will then determine the maximum daily amount that can be consumed over a life time without causing any adverse health effects. This figure will usually be far lower than even the minimum amount required to cause a health concern.
A note on phenylketonuria (PKU): Generally the only people put at risk by consuming an artificial sweetener are those with phenylketonuria (PKU). These individuals cannot metabolise (break down) phenylalanine, a compound found in a common sweetener – aspartame. This is why you see warnings on product food labels that contain phenylalanine. All newborns are tested for this condition.
Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?
Current evidence has concluded that there is no link between artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of cancer. The increased prevalence of bladder tumours witnessed in rats consuming a high dose of sweetener was found to be specific to the physiology of the rat. The study results are therefore non transferrable to humans. Studies on humans however, have shown no correlation between cancer and high doses of artificial sweetener.
Still unsure? If you would like to read more on this topic, the following websites provide evidence based information, sourced from reliable studies:
Additionally, the associations of artificial sweeteners to Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, birth defects and other conditions has not been supported by sound scientific evidence either.
- Due to artificial sweeteners being virtually kilojoule – free, they have no effect on blood glucose levels. This can be good for people with diabetes if they would like a sweet treat that will not make their BGLs peak.
- They do not cause cavities and tooth decay.
- Can help with the prevention or management of obesity, diabetes and indirectly heart disease.
- Artificial sweeteners may make it seem more acceptable to consume certain products in excess because they are low in energy. However, many of the foods and beverages that use sweeteners are still not of a high nutritional value and should be consumed in moderation e.g. diet soft drinks, sugar free chocolate and lollies – some of these items can contain caffeine, are high in saturated fat and are nutritionally void.
- People may be more inclined to drink sweetened soft drinks over water
- Some individuals suggest they may promote weight gain. Individuals may be consuming less energy from these products but their “sweet tooth” will still remain so cravings for high energy sweet foods may still prevail. It is also suggested that people may disassociate sweetness with a high energy content which could lead to the reintroduction of poor, energy dense food.
- Due to the potency of artificial sweeteners, a potential issue could be that people become desensitised to sweet foods meaning they can consume greater quantities and will need more to feel the same level of satisfaction (including the high kilojoules varieties).
- Excess of some sweeteners can have a laxative effect and cause diarrhoea.
In summary, artificial sweeteners should be consumed in moderation like anything else. They do not cause health concerns yet they often are not providing you with any valuable nutrition and can still have a high fat content. They can however be a good substitute for a high energy treat for individuals with diabetes or those trying to lose weight. In saying that, occasional, small amounts of sugar are alright for people with diabetes to consume – This is in line with the rest of the general population as part of a healthy diet! Try and use natural, nutritional foods instead for a sweet treat where possible e.g. fruit with low fat yoghurt.
For more information on sweeteners, weight management or any other nutrition related concerns you may have – contact the ENT Clinic on 1300 123 368 and make an appointment with our dietitian Belinda Elwin.
1. Diabetes Australia. Alternative Sweeteners. Diabetes Australia. Last updated: August 2012.