As a nutrition, wellness and weight loss professional, I get asked “Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?” all the time! And it can be a very polarized field of discussion. In this post, I will:
- Give you my take on artificial sweeteners and zero calorie sweeteners in general
- Do a little review of the most common on the market and a brief review of some of the research
- Talk about how my philosophy has changed over time
- Share some insight on how I jumped off the artificial sweetener train
Let me be really honest here, this post is full of my opinions with some research I’ve done. Yes, I’m sure anybody could argue these points because there is always at least two ways to look at anything. If you feel differently about the topic, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section of this post!
My Take on Zero Calorie and Artificial Sweeteners
The usage of zero calorie sweeteners can be a great way to significantly lower calories and still maintain the flavor in many of our favorite, traditionally high calorie treats. But as we all know, artificial sweeteners have not always received the best press and there seems to always be some controversy or disagreeing professional arguing the pros and cons of their consumption. There is research on both sides of the spectrum from cancer causing death threats to a great way to decrease dental cavities.
If you had asked me 5 years ago, I would have told you no. In fact, sugar-free, flavored syrups sweetened with splenda are a huge part of how I made most of my SkinnyTinis. It was a great way to cut 50% of the calories and maintain familiar flavors. And there is a part of me that still stands by that. Slashing the sugar content in cocktails is a great way to save calories and a headache. And I also believe in the “everything in moderation” philosophy. A SkinnyTini or two over time contains such a small bit of artificial sweetener that you will likely avoid any long term negative side effects.
Before I get into how my position has changed over time, let me do a quick review of what’s out there today.
Popular Zero Calorie and Artificial Sweeteners
- The Pink Packets: Saccharine is the artificial sweetener found in the pink packet and sold under the name Sweet & Low®. It is the original artificial sweetener that was discovered in late 1800s and introduced to the market in 1957 and has been used safely by people ever since. Saccharin is made through a multi-step process combining two chemical groups, and is about 300 times sweeter than sugar. Saccharine is likely the most controversial sweetener due to the fact that in the 1970’s animal studies indicated it was linked to cancer and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the manufacture to print a warning label on each packet indicating so. In the late 1990s, after more than 30 human studies found an overwhelming amount of support promoting saccharin’s safety, the National Toxicology Program removed it from its list of cancer causing agents and the warning label was eliminated.
- The Blue Packets: Aspartame is the sweetener found in the blue packets under the name NutraSweet and the brand Equal®. It was discovered in 1965 and granted approval for use by the FDA in 1981 after more than 100 scientific studies were conducted and reviewed. It is made by joining together natural two amino acids with a methyl-ester group, all of which occur naturally in foods eaten everyday. Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and has the ability to intensify and extend fruit flavors. Aspartame’s safety has been documented in more than 200 objective scientific studies over 35 years. The safety of aspartame has been confirmed by the regulatory authorities in more than 100 countries and is the primary sweetener in diet sodas.
- The Yellow Packets: Sucralose is the sweetener found in the yellow packets under the name Splenda®. The FDA first approved the use of sucralose as a nonnutritive sweetener in 1998 and expanded this approval in 1999 and it quickly became the most popular artificial sweetener due to its similarities to sugar. Sucralose is made through multi-step process that starts with sugar and converts it to a no calorie, non-carbohydrate sweetener and is about 600 times sweeter. While it tastes like sugar and has a similar structure, it is not considered a natural product. The safety of sucralose has been documented in more than 100 scientific studies conducted over a 20-year period. In addition, sucralose has been reviewed by the FDA and other national regulatory agencies, as well as by international health authorities such as the World Health Organization, and has been deemed to be safe for use by all consumers.
- The Green Packets: Stevia Rebaudiana is the root behind the “all natural zero calorie sweetener” craze and typically in some form of a green packet, under various brand names Truvia, Purevia, Stevia in the Raw, etc. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar and was first marketed in the US as an herbal supplement in the 1990’s but was very recently approved as a food product by the FDA. There is still a large amount of controversy as to whether it is “safe” or not. On the good side, Stevia is a natural sweetener meaning it comes from natural plants rather than made in a lab and is consider safer than many artificial sweeteners. On the flip side, there haven’t been enough studies done in order to prove if stevia is healthy or not and how it will affect your body over time.
How My Philosophy Has Changed Over Time
Because I also subscribe to the belief of the “calories in – calories out” weight loss equation, eliminating unnecessary calories is very appealing! This is why I drank diet coke whenever I wanted and put 1 pink packet in my coffee every morning since I turned 20. If I’d had regular soda and full sugar, one could do the math and tack 30 lbs onto me today. “We’re all going to die one day, may as well die skinny” is something you might have heard me say if you knew me really well. I picked the pink packets because they had been on the market the longest with no longterm studies pinning specific cases of cancer to it. The yellow packet scares me the most, only because it’s the newest. It has the least amount of time on the market, making the long term effects of human consumption completely unknown.
Trouble with Zero Calorie Sweeteners-Artificial Or Not
They are sweet! This is tricky on your body as sugar is sweet and is also highly efficient source of energy. When your blood sugar is high, your body secretes insulin to decrease it. Insulin works by putting the sugar away, back into muscles and liver as glycogen and into fat cells as fat if your glycogen is full. So when your tongue senses something sweet, your body could assume that was sugar (energy) coming in and put insulin to work. But what happens if there isn’t an excess of sugar in your blood to put away? Hummm…that’s confusing. Like anything, studies, articles and viewpoints vary.
Here is an article from Mark’s Daily Apple where he goes into detail on the topic of each individual sweetener. And while he concludes that there is little evidence to support the fact that artificial sweeteners stimulate insulin release, I’m still leery. And you combine that skepticism with the slew of controversial cancer research and my renewed sense and love of real food — I’m no longer on the fake sugar train. I think life is confusing enough and giving your body something it thinks is energy — but really isn’t — seems like a sure fire way to mess up cravings, snacking and energy levels.
How I Got Off The Fake Sugar Train
It wasn’t easy I’ll tell you that much. Especially if you think of it as jumping off a train. If the train is going at full speed and you just jump out — you are going to hit the ground hard, tumble around a bit and end up pretty bruised up and unhappy thinking “that was a bad idea.” If you get back on, you’re probably never going to jump off again. But what you can do is put on the breaks. Slowly, by using less and less. Over the course of about 90 days, I did it! I reversed my tastebuds and can no longer handle the taste of fake sugar. Here are the tricks I used:
- Axing Diet Coke: Thank goodness for Iced Tea and Lemon! Now I still have the occasional diet soda when I really crave it. But for the most part when I lunch out and I would have had a diet coke, I get an unsweetened iced tea with tons of lemon. I’ve learned to love how refreshing it is and it still has a little caffeine so you get the “perk me up” out of it too! Hot tea is also a fun solution, but careful with the Chai Tea Lattes. Lot’s of sugar in there!
- Morning and Mid Day Coffee: This was really hard and was quite the discussion on my FaceBook page. I solicited ideas from my friends and here’s what I ended up with: I started by upping the quality of my coffee beans. I also play with flavored coffees quite a bit. I add ground cinnamon and raw cacao powder to the beans. I started by adding a little agave (honey is good too) each day, a little less the next, and less the next. Now, I no longer need it regularly. Every once and a while I’ll add a teaspoon of real sweenener if I’m about to go on a run. I figure the extra energy will help me anyhow.
- SkinnyTinis: Instead of always using a sugar free syrup, I use flavored vodkas, fresh fruit and soda water for the most part. I will occasionally use diet ginger ale or a crystal light, because I still believe in “everything in moderation” and the recipes I have made are delicious and super low calorie. And for a fun holiday cocktail, the syrups can bring in a unique flavor you can’t otherwise get and will slash calories. But for the most part, I have found that using my juicer and juicing real foods creates a very dense flavor that can easily be thinned out with soda water to cut down calories. My Country Cosmo is a great example.
So… “Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad For You?”
Well, like most things, this is a bit of a gray area. There isn’t underlying evidence that says YES — they are very bad. And there isn’t enough of reason to assume their safe either. You can see I’m not 100% artificial sweetener free, but you won’t find many recipes in my Color Yourself Skinny 21-Day Diet Detox that feature them either, short of just a few SkinnyTinis. For me personally, I use less and less each day and can confidently recommend it as a good idea for most people.
I’m not saying swap out all your artificial sweeter for real sugar today – that will add to your waistline. And I’m not saying eliminate everything sweet too — as that shock to your taste buds may not go over well. But it is a good idea to look for healthier alternatives in general than the high sugar solution.
You will find that these changes in lifestyle will not just benefit your long term health, but also the way you feel each day. Your cravings may come into check, your energy levels may be more stable and you can feel confident that you’re making daily decisions that support a healthy, happy body from the inside out!
So what do you think? Yes, no, a little? What are your favorite healthy habits to decrease sugar consumption artificial or not?