Artificial sweeteners – It’s complicated

Last Modified: 4/19/2021

Artificial sweetener

This post was written by Hannah Thompson, RDN, LD, PPG – Weight Management & Bariatric Surgery.

Artificial sweeteners (also referred to as nonnutritive sweeteners or sugar substitutes) have been on the shelves for decades and are a topic of great debate. Do they help or inhibit weight loss? Are they safe? How do they affect blood sugar levels?

You may have heard that sugar intake is partially to blame for the growing obesity rate. Obesity is a complex disease with many different causes and sugar alone cannot be blamed, however, many individuals consume well above the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 per day for men. When striving for weight loss, decreasing sugar intake may be helpful. For some, artificial sweeteners are used for a sugar substitute to take care of that sweet tooth.

What would be considered an artificial sweetener?

Artificial sweeteners are food products that offer the taste of sweetness without any calories (nonnutritive). They are derived from plants or from sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar and therefore you need less of it to achieve the same sugary flavor.  Examples include Splenda® (sucralose), Sweet’N Low® (saccharin) and NutraSweet/Equal® (aspartame).

Artificial sweeteners are not all created equal and the body’s response to each type is quite complex. Artificial sweeteners are not metabolized the same way as glucose (sugar), and they do not provide calories or have much of an effect on blood sugar.

Sugar alcohols, while still a sugar substitute, are considered nutritive sweeteners, as they provide 2 calories per gram (sugar provides 4 calories per gram). Despite their name, sugar alcohols do not affect the body the same way that alcohol does. You can find sugar alcohols in foods labeled as “sugar free” or “no sugar added.” Common sugar alcohols include mannitol, xylitol and sorbitol. Some of these sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal distress. You can find more information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about sugar alcohols here.

Are artificial sweeteners safe?

The FDA has approved the use of the following non-nutritive sweeteners: acesulfame potassium (AceK), aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, monk fruit, and, most recently, Advantame. Over the years, there have been concerns that artificial sweeteners can lead to negative effects, such as cancer. These fears stem from animal studies in which mice given large amounts of artificial sweeteners have developed cancer. However, these studies have been examined closely and there is currently no evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners cause cancer in humans. We would need to consume very large amounts of artificial sweeteners to see any of these cancerous effects.

Do artificial sweeteners help with weight loss?

Though replacing sugary foods and beverages with sugar-free substitutes will lead to decreased caloric intake, this swap alone will likely not lead to weight loss. In fact, the evidence is mixed on if artificial sweeteners help or hinder weight loss. Some research suggests that artificial sweeteners may stimulate our appetite and make us want to eat more. It has also been noted that artificial sweeteners may lead to more intense sweets cravings, which could lead to overeating these foods later.

Likewise, some individuals may knowingly choose sugar substitutes so that they can compensate with more calories from food (ex: ordering a diet soda and large fries at a restaurant). The diet product may not be as satisfying and the person might overeat despite the swap.

So, do artificial sweeteners help with weight loss? The bottom line is that it’s complicated. While artificial sweeteners may be a good tool for some individuals, more research is needed, and they should not be solely depended on for weight loss.

For more information or to take the first step in your road to wellness, contact PPG – Weight Management & Bariatric Surgery. We want to help you on your journey to a healthier life.


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