The science behind sweeteners

It's unclear whether or not artificial sweeteners are linked to health problems and cravings. Let's review the science behind these questions.

Oh how sweet it would be to have your cake and eat it too (without added sugar). Like many people, you may have gotten hooked on that sweet stuff and sometimes struggle with your sugar intake.  

Artificial sweeteners appear to be the perfect solution. They gift a surge of sweetness with minimal to no sugar and calories. But are these mainly manufactured alternatives to sugar healthy? We’ll guide you through all you need to know about sweeteners. 

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that are added to our foods and drinks, in order to sweeten them. When compared to regular sugar, they’re lower in calories and don’t elevate blood sugar levels, making them helpful for weight and diabetes management. They also are safe for your teeth, unlike sugar which can lead to dental cavities (1).

Artificial sweeteners are sometimes hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sugar (2). They work by allowing your brain to register the sweet taste, yet the way they are broken down in your body is different from sugar. So you get a sweet taste without the extra calories.

Are artificial sweeteners safe?

Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers most man-made artificial sweeteners to be “generally recognized as safe”, some health authorities suggest treading lightly when it comes to including them in your daily diet (3). 

Weight and related disease

In theory, switching to artificial sweeteners may help you reduce the amount of calories you eat which can contribute to maintaining a healthy weight and therefore reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Some studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners may cause weight gain due to changes in gut bacteria and an increase in the fat-storing hormone insulin (4). But more research needs to be done in order to make this claim. 

Stomach upset

Some research has suggested that when animals are fed artificial sweeteners, they experience changes to their gut bacteria, therefore potentially leading to digestive issues. However, the research is not clear whether these symptoms are caused by the sweeteners or other factors (5).  

Sugar alcohols (more on what this is to come), especially in large quantities, can result in gas, diarrhea, bloating, and cramps. This is because the sugar alcohols only get partially absorbed. As a result, water is pulled into your digestive tract and the bacteria will ferment them, leading to tummy issues for some people (6). 

Sweet cravings

Some science has suggested that when humans taste the sweetness of the artificial sweeteners without calories, they may end up having more cravings. Also that it trains our taste buds and brains for higher levels of sweetness. Meaning when you do eat real sugar, you’ll want more than usual. But this is not conclusive since there is not enough research (7).

Disease

You may have heard that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. This was based on studies done in the 1970s (8). However, the amount of artificial sweeteners used for the test animals was near impossible for humans to consume. 

Common sweeteners

The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners including saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. It has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener called stevia. 

Natural sweeteners

Stevia is a natural sweetener that comes from the leaves of a plant species, Stevia rebaudiana. This plant is native to Brazil and Paraguay.

Just like with any food, there is a big difference between growing stevia at home, versus getting processed versions at the store. Products at the stores don’t contain the whole stevia leaf which tends to be healthier. 

  • Stevia sources: Truvia, teas, sweets, chewing gum, and soft drinks.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are man made chemicals, meaning they can’t be found in nature. They typically taste a lot sweeter than real sugar. 

  • Saccharin (Sweetex and Sweet 'N Low): green and white tablets, pink table packets, diet sodas, gum, fruit in syrup.
  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One®): pink table packets, gum, candy, diet sodas, syrupe, sauces. 
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet®, Equal®, NatraTaste®): blue table packets, diet sodas, gum, gelatins, dessert mixes, puddings, yogurt, and cough drops.
  • Sucralose (Splenda): yellow table packet. diet, low-sugar cookies, dessert, gum, sweets.

Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols contain about half of the calories as regular sugar. They don’t cause drastic increases in blood sugar, so they may be a helpful replacement for people with diabetes. 

They don’t get fully digested so some people may experience bloating, gas, and stomach upset after eating too many of them.  

  • Xylitol: sugar-free gum, mints, toothpaste, mouthwash.
  • Erythritol: Truvia and products containing Truvia such as soft drinks and sweets.
  • Sorbitol: sugar-free or “diabetic” foods and drinks.
  • Maltitol: cakes, pastries, sweets, snack bars, and gum.

Sweeten up your meal plan 

Even though there are concerns about artificial sweeteners, the evidence isn’t strong enough to suggest that they are unsafe. Yet, it’s always a good idea to err on the side of safety when it comes to processed foods and ingredients. If you have artificial sweeteners, aim for moderation. They can also be a helpful tool for short-term weight loss plans such as the keto diet. 

Not sure which meal plan or diet is right for you? Try out a personalized nutrition quiz.

8 references (hide)

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

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