The Risks of Artificial Sweeteners

Consuming artificial sweeteners in large amounts can carry a number of health risks that are worth knowing about. Keep reading.
The Risks of Artificial Sweeteners
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 20 February, 2023

Artificial sweeteners have become all the rage in recent years as substitutes for simple sugars. They promise to sweeten foods and drinks without adding calories or affecting blood glucose levels. However, they’re mostly chemical substances whose effects on the body are controversial, especially when we talk about the long term. There’s a great deal of controversy on the issue.

Before beginning, it’s essential to highlight that the high content of simple sugars in most industrially processed foods has caused type 2 diabetes to be an endemic problem today. Many middle-aged people have developed a disease that increases the risk of suffering other serious disorders, such as cancer and cardiovascular accidents.

What are artificial sweeteners?

Under the name of sweeteners, we can refer to a fairly large group of substances, mostly of chemical origin, which improve the flavor of food by providing sweetness.

They’re used in the context of the food industry to make foodstuffs with excellent organoleptic characteristics that are low in calories. Initially, the vast majority of sweeteners don’t provide energy, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t interact with various systems in the body.

It’s true that it’s important to consider that not all sweeteners are the same. We can find a small group of elements that have a natural origin.

The great representative of this group would be stevia. It comes from a plant that can even be grown at home. A series of glycosides are extracted from the leaves that allow sweetening without consequences at the energy level. It’s considered one of the healthiest alternatives to sugar.

However, due to its characteristics, or because the production methods are more expensive, stevia is one of the least-used artificial sweeteners in processed products. It’s more common to find other compounds such as sucralose, acesulfame-K, and even aspartame.

The latter has caused many conflicts on the scientific level, as recent evidence gives it a carcinogenic power in doses that aren’t very high.

The truth is that, despite the doubts they raise, these kinds of compounds are increasingly present in people’s diets. In some cases, the daily amount ingested already exceeds that of sugar.

Taking into account the limited availability of scientific articles that assess the risks in the medium and long term, the best thing that could be done is to appeal to the principle of prudence. In other words, you can include artificial sweeteners in your diet, but in moderation.

The side effects of artificial sweeteners

Sweeteners can affect the intestinal microbiota.
The intestinal microbiota is a delicate system that is very important for digestive health, but is easily altered by external factors.

One of the first side effects of sweeteners that we must discuss has to do with their impact on the intestinal microbiota.

These compounds ferment in the digestive tract, negatively influencing the density and diversity of the bacteria that live there. This’s evidenced by research published in the journal Nature. This could cause serious health problems in the medium term, although it will depend on the dose consumed.

It’s important to take into account that the set of microorganisms that inhabit this system largely determine the digestive and nutrient absorption capacities.

If the microbiota isn’t competent, bile acids may not emulsify, hindering their function. In the same way, they’re capable of acting on the central nervous system, in addition to influencing the inflammatory mechanisms of the internal environment.

This is one of the reasons why prudence is recommended when it comes to the use of sweeteners. Not all affect the same, nor in the same doses, but the vast majority seem to have an impact on intestinal bacteria. Taking into account that the consumption of many industrial processes can already negatively condition their performance, it’s not a good idea to include more stressors in this system.

Now, they not only generate the said effect. The relationship between the chronic consumption of artificial sweeteners and the risk of developing certain types of cancer is the subject of many current studies. According to a very recent study published in PLoS Medicine, abusing some of these compounds could trigger the risk of tumors, especially breast cancer.

Even so, not everyone has the same risks. Natural sweeteners, such as stevia, seem to be more respectful of both the microbiota and the physiology of the internal environment. The problem is that they’re the least frequent. They can even be diluted with other types of compounds, which reduces their purity and increases the risks associated with their consumption.

Artificial sweeteners and diabetes

The replacement of added sugar with artificial sweeteners is carried out with the aim of reducing the epidemic of diabetes and obesity, while maintaining the good organoleptic characteristics of many foods.

However, it’s not clear if this dietary mechanism actually generates the expected result. Some authors maintain that the consumption of these chemicals could also promote the development of excess weight over the years.

The sweet taste generates the release of neurotransmitters associated with the sensation of instant pleasure, which leads the person to consume more food. Likewise, the changes induced in the microbiota could negatively influence glucose metabolism, thus causing an effect that’s opposite to what was initially expected and desired. Therefore, there are many doubts about their use.

It’s possible to find evidence suggesting that replacing added sugar with sweeteners in people with diabetes improves disease management. Even so, there’s still a lot of controversy about it, so it’s better to be cautious about its consumption.

Although in the short term, they may be an advantageous option when it comes to glycemic control, it’s important to see how they impact the body as the years go by.

At the end of the day, we’re talking mostly about chemical compounds. They’re not naturally present in food. Therefore, the body isn’t used to their consumption. The effects that may develop in the medium term are still unknown, in many aspects. In fact, some of these compounds have already been banned, after trials came to light that strongly questioned their healthiness.

The problem with ultra-processed foods

Sweeteners are present in many foods.
There are many products that we can buy in supermarkets that contain abundant sweeteners without even realizing it.

Beyond the possible risks of the use and consumption of sweeteners, there is the problem of the excessive presence of industrially processed foods in the diet. These are the products that may contain this and another class of compounds that are potentially harmful to health.

An example would be trans fats, which have been shown to increase inflammation in the internal environment and increase the risk of developing chronic and complex diseases.

Therefore, one of the main goals of nutrition today is to generally reduce the presence of this type of food in the diet. It’s always convenient to prioritize fresh foods, which don’t contain additives. They’re capable of providing nutrients that are high in quality and biological value, which ensures the proper functioning of the body in the medium and long term.

With this simple measure, the development of many chronic and complex diseases that are common today could be prevented. In addition, it’s key to promote a series of habits as a whole. Among them, it’s worth highlighting the need to practice physical exercise on a daily basis. However, all this may not be easy, as the adaptation to sweetness goes beyond a simple dietary habit.

There are authors who speak of addiction to this flavor, be it through sugar or artificial sweeteners. Although it doesn’t fully fit into the concept of an addictive substance, both sugar and its analogs are associated with the sensation of pleasure.

This invites you to increase their consumption, as it results in a sense of satisfaction that takes little effort. Of course, the duration of said satisfaction is also very limited.

Artificial sweeteners in food

The truth is that today we find a growing number of industrial foods that have sweeteners inside. An example would be yogurts and protein shakes.

In principle, they should be classified as beneficial, given their nutritional concentration. However, the use of sweeteners of controversial quality raises many doubts about the effects of including these foods in the daily regimen.

Soft drinks are also products that are brimming with additives. In this case, the effect of the sweeteners should be added to that of the dyes and other types of compounds of dubious quality. It’s best to limit or restrict their presence in the diet, as from a nutritional point of view, they don’t provide benefits. The best tool to guarantee a good state of hydration is water. This should never be lost sight of.

Artificial sweeteners, additives that generate a lot of controversy

There are quite a few risks associated with regularly consuming high-dose artificial sweeteners. It’s best to moderate their presence in the diet to limit them and thus maintain a good state of health in the medium term. In the same way, it’s important to reduce the intake of sugar, especially in the case of people who don’t perform high-intensity physical exercise on a frequent basis.

Finally, we must warn about the intake of additives in general. It’s best to consume fresh products, as these don’t contain chemicals inside that can condition the functioning of human physiology. In the case of resorting to processed foods, it’s crucial to read the package labels to check the number and type of additives they contain, discarding them if they exceed a reasonable number.

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