The Bitter Truth About Artificial Sweeteners | Keck Medicine of USC

The Bitter Truth About Artificial Sweeteners

Although they are advertised as being better for your body than sugar, artificial sweeteners may be not be as harmless as they seem.

Ever since saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, was created in 1879, scientists have been keeping an eye on the possible side effects of sugar substitutes. While they don’t have any calories and don’t contribute to tooth decay the way sugar does, the latest studies show that they are far from being the magic bullets the diet soda industry would like consumers to believe.

Here are a few essential facts to keep in mind next time you think about adding a sugar substitute to your tea or coffee.

They may not help with weight control

One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners is that they have almost no calories. A gram of sugar has four calories, a teaspoon has about 16 calories and a 12-ounce can of sweetened soda has about 150 calories. So, if you are trying to avoid gaining weight, using artificial sweeteners may seem like a reasonable option.

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But some research has shown that artificial sweeteners may be associated with increased weight. According to a study that followed thousands of San Antonio residents for a decade, those who drank more than 21 servings of diet drinks a week were at twice the risk of becoming overweight or obese. The more diet soda they consumed, the greater the risk became.

They may lead to the temptation to eat more

Saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame and sucralose are the five main types of artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA. But nutritionists warn about the possibility that consuming them regularly may offset weight loss or health benefits. There is a good chance that those who use artificial sweeteners may indulge in more fatty food because they’re drinking diet soda. You can learn more about each one of these additives here.

They may overstimulate your sugar receptors

Some studies have shown that sugar substitutes may actually alter the way we taste food, as they are more powerful than table sugar and high-fructose syrup. A small amount of these nonnutritive sweeteners produces a much sweeter taste when compared with sugar. This overstimulation of sugar receptors can then limit our tolerance for more complex tastes. As a result, frequent sweetener users may build up resistance to less intensely sweet food such as fruits and unsweet, nutritious food such as vegetables.

They may be highly addictive

Giving up diet sodas and artificial sweeteners may not be as easy as you think.  Some studies in animals have suggested that these additives may be highly addictive. According to one study, rats that were exposed to cocaine and were then given the option to pick between cocaine and oral saccharin, actually selected saccharin in greater numbers.

What about stevia?

In the past few years, a natural, low in calories sweetener known as stevia has been growing in popularity. Extracted from the leaves of the plant species known as Stevia rebaudiana, it’s 300 times sweeter than sugar. However, no long-term studies have been done to evaluate its full effects on human health, and the FDA has not approved the use of whole-leaf Stevia or crude Stevia extracts as food additives. Some artificial sweeteners use a compound called rebaudioside, a stevia extract that undergoes a lengthy chemical process.

“While there is no sound scientific evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer or other serious medical conditions, there may still be good reason to exercise caution when using these products,” warns Kamran Samakar, MD, assistant professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and general surgeon at Keck Medicine of USC. “We always counsel our patients to abstain from drinking any refined sugar as part of their diet, avoid artificial sweeteners when possible and optimize their consumption of water in order to stay well hydrated and avoid unnecessary chemicals or calories.”

Eliminating diet sodas and artificial sweeteners from your diet is an option too. If you have any questions about eating healthy or how to make your diet work for you, schedule a visit with your primary care physician.

by Ramin Zahed

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