“The dose makes the poison.”
Are artificial sweeteners bad for you? I recently received an email from another alternative medicine practitioner stating that “he couldn’t believe I recommended artificial sweeteners on my website!” My response was, “So let me get this straight if one of your patients asked you if she could have a Diet Coke once a month you would say no?”
So many things in our world have become so black and white that people have forgotten about moderation as a sensible way of life.
Artificial sweeteners have been taking a beating since saccharin was lynched in 1977 supposedly being linked to cancer despite no real sensible data on humans to support it. The amount of saccharin you would have to consume to potentially have negative effects would be 4 cans of Tab every single day (Who still drinks Tab?). Saccharin doesn’t really even exist anymore other than in Tab and a tiny amount in Sweet’N Low.
The main three artificial sweeteners in commercial use today are:
I’ll cut right to the chase, there is absolutely no evidence that long-term consumption of diet sodas consumed in a reasonable amount have any negative health effects. What causes negative health effects related to diet sodas is simply too many calories and people who drink diet sodas tend to already eat too much food. People who already eat a healthy diet and exercise tend not to gravitate towards diet sodas but if they want to enjoy them in moderation there are absolutely no health consequences in doing so.
What created the mass hysteria about artificial sweeteners?
A few studies on rodents showed that aspartame increased certain types of cancers but they were fed quantities of aspartame that no human could actually consume in a day. Imagine a pick-up truck with a big mountain of aspartame in the back and you would actually have to eat that mountain every day to possibly get cancer. Then imagine a single granule of that mountain as a single diet soda consumed in moderation.
Additionally, rodents do not metabolize aspartame the same way humans do so we can’t even effectively make similar conclusions from these studies.
What about sucralose?
A safe amount of sucralose is 5mg/kg bodyweight but most people don’t even come close to this averaging about 1.6mg/kg bodyweight. No studies have shown any detrimental effects from sucralose in these ranges. You would have to consume 11,450 packets of sucralose every day to have any detrimental effects.
But don’t artificial sweeteners spike insulin?
No, at least not to any significant level that would be detrimental to health. There is no solid evidence to support that diet sodas spike insulin to an unhealthy level. In fact, when aspartame was consumed with or without carbohydrates it did not spike insulin levels. Even diabetics who consumed artificial sweeteners did not experience an insulin spike.
The only study to show it spiked insulin was done on rat pancreatic cells in a test tube when combined with sugar.
What about weight gain?
The CHOICE study actually found that eating a healthy diet and changing from regular soda to diet soda was effective for losing weight.
The PREMIER TRIAL found that if you reduce diet soda consumption you will not improve your weight loss numbers at all.
The NHANES study showed that if you increase your consumption of diet soda you will not eat more calories and gain weight.
The key points that researchers make about artificial sweeteners in regards to weight gain are that many people are eating poorly in the first place and then they change to diet soda to “do less damage” which clearly will not make much of an impact. Those people who are eating a healthy diet in the first place and consume artificial sweeteners in moderation will have absolutely no negative effects.
If you’re eating a crappy diet in the first place then consuming diet sodas won’t make much of a difference. If you order a Big Mac, Supersize Fries, and a Diet Coke, you’re not really doing anything positive. However, if you order a burger made from grass-fed beef with some vegetables on the side and wash it down with a diet soda, then you won’t experience any negative effects from the artificial sweetener.
How do we interpret the research on artificial sweeteners?
It’s important to understand how to interpret the scientific literature so you can understand how studies differ. Here are some key points to understand about these studies in particular:
- Some of the negative studies about artificial sweeteners are either surveys or epidemiological studies. These types of studies do not take into account exercise, pre-existing conditions, quality of diet, water intake, medications, mental status, relationships, supplementation, stress levels etc. etc. This means that the data might come from large groups of people who never exercise and eat fast food every day so we can’t truly establish cause and effect.
- One example is the Northern Manhattan Study which actually did control a few variables such as diet and they found no negative effects from diet sodas when everyone was eating relatively the same healthy diet.
- Quantity and quality must be taken into account and this is simply missing in these types of studies. How much diet soda consumed must be taken into account and the overall quality of a patient’s lifestyle and diet are paramount in coming to the right conclusion.
- Most studies show that diet soda is actually consumed mainly by unhealthy people who consume unhealthy diets. That means they already have at least one disease such as diabetes for example and they are trying to get “healthier” by switching from regular Coke to Diet Coke. This clearly will not have much of an impact.
Are there any truly negative effects of diet soda?
The one clear problem from excessive consumption is poor dental health, especially in children. Diet sodas are very acidic which has been shown to negatively affect dental health and yellowing of teeth. But once again, these studies clearly explain that the negative effects are much worse when proper dental hygiene is not practiced in combination with the consumption.
Additionally, regular sodas with sugar are far worse than diet sodas in this regard for dental health. Lastly, these studies clearly state that overconsumption of diet sodas create poor dental health. Once again, this brings us back to quantity, frequency, and quality.
If you have the genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU) then the phenylalanine in diet sodas may reach toxic levels if you consume too many diet sodas. Phenylalanine is a naturally-occurring amino acid also found in aspartame but if you have PKU then your body won’t metabolize it correctly and you should avoid diet sodas.
There are some preliminary studies showing negative effects on gut bacteria resulting in insulin resistance and induction of similar bacterial colonies as those in obese individuals but again these are on rodents. Even the researchers themselves state that it is far too soon to make any solid conclusions especially since the research was done on mice and not humans.
Even if future studies do show that artificial sweeteners negatively affect the gut microbiome in humans, it will take consistent and excessive consumption for that to happen.
So what course of action should you take?
If you are trying to lose weight by eating a healthy diet and exercising then studies have shown that using diet sodas to reduce calories is an effective strategy for weight loss. This allows you to have something sweet when you really want it during a dieting phase without depriving yourself or slowing down your progress.
Always be wary of sensationalized news headlines designed to grab reader’s attention and campaigns designed to create mass hysteria. The media doesn’t understand how to truly interpret scientific information so they are not a reliable source for health information.
Stop worrying about artificial sweeteners but of course, don’t consume excessive amounts. Enjoy a diet soda now and then such as when you’re at the movies or if you just want something sweet without the calories. Technology can be really amazing and these sweeteners are examples of how science can improve your quality of life.
This article is written to alleviate any concerns about artificial sweeteners when consumed in reasonable moderation and its message is not to suggest you should start drinking more diet sodas.
Personally, I average about 1 diet soda every three months such as when I’m at a social event, the movies or when I’m dining out. So that’s about 4 diet sodas a year and I enjoy them without hesitation. Although, if you consumed a little more than I do you would probably still be ok. Enjoy your life!