Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad for You?

artificial sweetenerSugar can pack on the pounds, increase cravings for sweet foods, and cause tooth decay. So what’s a sweet tooth to do when health is at risk? Most people now turn to sugar substitutes. Even though artificial sweeteners are often the topic of debate because extremely high doses of saccharin have been shown to cause bladder cancer in lab rats, there is no scientific proof that they cause cancer in humans. Saccharin, one of the oldest artificial sweeteners, was discovered in 1870 by accident one night when a chemist spilled lab material on himself and noticed a sweet taste coming from his hand while eating dinner later that night.

So how do you know if you should be using sweeteners or not? Let’s take a look at how they work when ingested. Artificial sweeteners are typically way sweeter than normal sugar, so tiny amounts can give you the same sweetening power but without the calories. They have been approved by the FDA as safe to consume, but we still need to keep in mind that by adding artificial sweeteners to our food and drink, we are still eating something that has no nutritional value and does not function like food in our systems.

While people suffering from diabetes may use it as a last resort, if you can avoid using artificial sweeteners, you should. Here’s why: Some studies have shown that people who consume large quantities of artificial sweeteners while dieting, end up eating more. While they load up on diet sodas and “sugar-free” frozen treats, they might be saving on part of their calorie intake only to trigger a stronger need in the body for the real thing. Many will end up making up the calories with other items like salty snacks or even high fat treats that they wouldn’t normally eat.

So how do you chart your sugar intake and even decrease it? It can be challenging when you are a hardcore candy-holic like I was growing up, but here’s how I did it.

1. How much sugar do you really eat? Take an honest look at how much sugar you consume in your every day diet, including breakfast cereals, drinks, candies, muffins, cakes, cookies, condiments (like ketchup and relish), as well as other prepackaged foods. Most condiments have high-fructose corn syrup in them. Read labels, it only takes 10 minutes a day to figure it out.

2. See if there is a “repeat offender” in the list. Limit it to just once a week or cut it out altogether if you can. In college, mine was one candy bar a day, at 273 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 28 grams of sugar. So how much sugar should you limit yourself to a day? The USDA tells me that for a person my size, age, weight, and activity level, I should limit extra fats and sugars to a total of 265 calories – that means every day I was going way over the limit because of that candy bar! Slowly, those extra calories, sugar and fat turned into fat that was visible on my body. I decided to stop having my daily treat just for a month – just to see what would happen, without making any other changes in my diet. Guess what? I lost a whole dress size.

3. Replace some of the high-sugar items in your diet with healthier choices. Craving a cool ice cream treat? Try a low-sugar pop without artificial sweetener made with low-fat yogurt. If you find yourself guzzling those sugary gourmet coffee drinks, try making your own warm drink with a lot less sugar like my spiced chai tea that you can make ahead.

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  1. Hi Jen, Great article!
    Do you think the herbal supplement “stevia” is a better alternative to the other sugar substitutes on the market?

  2. Great question Kathy! Stevia, which is almost calorie free, comes from a scrub native to Africa. The FDA has not approved it as “safe” since the current research hasn’t determined whether it’s safe or not, so I would caution people when using it.

    Lately I’ve been using agave syrup that does have some natural sugars but is low on the glycemic index, making it a better choice for keeping blood sugar from spiking.

  3. Rachel says:

    Skinny Chef,
    Is using fructose better than regular sugar. I am following a “zone” type diet in which all the recipes call for fructose instead of sugar.

  4. Hi Rachel!

    Great question! Fructose is sugar that oftentimes comes from fruit. The “Zone” diet is focused on portion control as well as controlling insulin levels in the body. Fructose still works like sugar in your body, it has calories and is used up as fuel if you are active. However, it has a lower glycemic index which means it increased your blood sugar level less than table sugar, which is helpful with weight loss.

  5. Hello,
    We have been visting your site and have really enjoyed it and have learned alot from it.
    After some extensive research on stevia, myself and many of our friends trust and enjoy Stevia. The product has been used for over one thousand years. In Japan it has been studied at great cost and time to them and they approve it for their people. It has been used in many countries for many decades and there has not been, to our understanding, any negative reports from its use. From what we have read and studied, even the FDA has approved it for use again, but in a limited use manner. Any individual in the US may use it but food manufacturing companies may not add it to their food products. We believe the FDA is not being fair.
    If artificial sugars have been tested and found to have some possible negative effects should’nt they also be approved in a limited fashion also. Stevia is a great product.
    Keep up your good work!

  6. Brittany says:

    Hey guys!!

    I would also caution against using Stevia. Mainly, because it has not been approved by the FDA. Even products that cause cancer in lab rats have been approved by the FDA (aka Splenda.) If these and other dangerous products have been approved by the FDA, then why wouldn’t they approve Stevia?? It’s a good question, and one that we should think long and hard about before picking up a pack of Stevia.

  7. Jim Arden says:

    What is your opinion of Splenda?

  8. Sabrina says:

    Hey Skinny Chef!

    Great article, but I’d like to ask and maybe say a little.
    Isn’t the other artificial sweetener, aspartame, which is used in NutraSweet and Equal bad for a person? It too, was also discovered on accident and no this isn’t stemming from the hoax about cancer and all :]

    Thank you for reading my belated comment,

  9. Use caution when using Stevia. I brought the grainy sugar like type at my local supermarket and ended up breaking out in an itchy red rash literally all OVER my body and ended up having trouble breathing which caused me to end up in the hospital twice.

  10. Jordan says:

    When Aspartame begins to break down inside the human body, it breaks down into four well known and well feared poisons: aspartic acid, methanol, phenylalanine and formaldehyde. Methanol is most commonly found in our everyday automotive fuels, and as little as 10ml of pure Methanol is known to be fatal to humans if ingested. Formaldehyde is a widely recognized carcinogen, and exposure to it can cause hematologic cancers, several forms of leukemia, lymphatic cancers, and brain tumors. (National Cancer Institute). These chemicals are seriously scary!

    • Uli Iserloh says:

      thanks for the extensive comment. The safety of aspartame has indeed created many controversies since its initial approval for use in food products by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974. A 2007 medical review on the subject concluded that “the weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener”.

      The key words here are “at current levels of consumption” – i.e. Aspartame is safe when consumed in normal amounts. Here’s why that distinction is important:

      Before any substance gets tested in humans, it has to go into a lengthy battery of tests including in rodents. The FDA requires that you have to dose the substance high enough to see some side effect, so oftentimes, the substance is dosed at insanely high levels to show such an effect. So while it’s true that any substance causes side effects, it’s the dose that matters. To see the effects that you mentioned in humans, you would have to consume 4 pounds of pure Aspartame each day…. and quite honestly, nobody is gonna do that. So that’s why the FDA can say that Aspartame is safe to consume at normal consumption levels of a few spoonfuls a day.

      However, and the above study points this out, because Aspartame’s breakdown products include phenylalanine, aspartame must be avoided by people with the genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU).

  11. Jason Severino says:

    Great Article and responses!
    The key thing to remember is to go back to the first question “Do I want to live healthier?”
    The fact that the artificial sweeteners may end up making you more hungry is proof against use as a dieting technique in sugar replacement.
    And more seriously, the FDA approves so many chemicals and foods that have been genetically engineered for ‘Better Health’ but really, how much man-made crap do you really want to be consuming? High-fuctrose corn syrup is bad enough with glycemic levels and weight gain, if people would consider the ‘ThrowBack’ soda concept using actual cane sugar and avoiding unnecessary modifications to natural sweeteners I think there would be a wave of healthier, happier people. Everything in moderation! 🙂

  12. Some artificial sweeteners leave an aftertaste.

  13. Just to be clear Stevia is a real plant. They have been using it in South America for 300 years to sweeten food. The reason it isn’t allowed to be called a “sweetener” is for political reasons. Lawsuits and big sugar cane and corn syrup money that doesn’t want it to get approved because Stevia will blow them out of the water!

    • Hey Frank!

      Thanks for writing in- I love readers’ comments always!!

      True, stevia is derived from the actual leaves of a plant but it goes through a process to turn it into the powdered sweetener we buy commercially. Also for clarity’s sake, many edible herbs and supplements can have adverse effects if taking in large doses, can cause allergies, and high doses of certain so called “safe” vitamins can even increase your cancer risk. In fact many herbal supplements can be dangerous, so just because it comes from a natural sources doesn’t mean it’s safe. We’re still learning about Stevia and the studies aren’t there yet. In the meanwhile, enjoy in moderation 🙂

      PS Yes, the HFCS people are probably bummed!!

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