Splenda, Truvia, and Sweet’n’Low oh my! Artificial sweeteners can be found everywhere, so it’s no surprise that eight out of 10 Americans now consume some sort of artificial sweetener. But are you aware of what they can do to your health?
What are artificial sweeteners in the first place?
Artificial sweeteners may be made in a lab or they may be derived from naturally occurring substances, such as herbs or sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are several times sweeter than sugar. While artificial sweeteners can be attractive alternatives to sugar because they often tout 0 calories, there’s more to them than their sweet taste.
Why are they dangerous?
All artificial sweeteners must be reviewed and cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But while artificial sweetener here and there likely won’t hurt you in the long term, it’s important to embrace the fact that so many of our day-today choices can seriously threaten the health of the microbiome. These alterations in the microbiome that enhance metabolic changes - affecting things like glucose balance and body fat - are of great concern as just these two factors alone have been associated with increased risk for a large list of health issues including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, depression, and even Alzheimer’s disease. So the health implications related to damaging the microbiome with artificial sweeteners extend beyond diabetes.
In 2013, French researchers showed a strong relationship between the consumption of artificially-sweetened beverages and risk for developing type-2 diabetes. This study analyzed nearly 70,000 women for 14 years, and discovered that compared to those not consuming soda, those who drank artificially sweetened beverages had about a 200% increased risk for becoming diabetic. In another study, Boston researchers tested the brain function and diets of 1,484 elderly individuals for 10 years. The results of this project revealed an increased risk (nearly three times) for Alzheimer’s disease in chronic consumers of artificially-sweetened beverages. Furthermore, stroke risk was increased almost as much. Interestingly, there was no increased risk of stroke or Alzheimer’s disease in those who consumed regular sugar sweetened beverages.
Essentially, artificial sweeteners have been shown to cause glucose intolerance by altering gut microbiota and glucose intolerance in humans. This is important since diabetes has been associated with as much as a 4-fold increase in risk for the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, efforts for effective pharmaceutical Alzheimer’s disease treatments have not been fruitful. This means that there needs to be an increased focus on preventative measures.
How to Replace Artificial Sweeteners
Replacing artificial sweeteners comes down to two things: getting rid of the source of artificial sweetener or finding alternatives with natural sweeteners. For example, instead of reaching for Splenda for your morning beverage, either do without sweetener or consider local honey, date syrup, or coconut nectar as an alternative.
Be mindful of what you’re putting into your body and also the frequency of which you’re doing it. This isn’t to say that artificial sweeteners alone cause chronic disease, but they do contribute. As with everything, there is a complex interplay between all different factors in our human body.
- Guy Fagherazzi, , et al., Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale– European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Cohort. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;97:517–23
- Suez J, Korem T, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 2014;514:181–186
- Matthew P. Pase, et al. Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia A Prospective Cohort Study. Stroke. May, 2017;48