The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners


Healthy Living - March 15, 2016
Amy Movius, MD

Using artificial sweeteners probably makes most of us think of watching our weight. This is logical, since artificially sweetened soda is labeled “diet” soda. Though diet soda, for example, is not touted as a health food, substituting if for regular soda seems like a reasonable way to decrease sugar and calories for soda drinkers. Ironically, evidence is increasing that routinely consuming products that contain artificial sweeteners may have the OPPOSITE effect and lead to increases in consumed calories and sugar and subsequently weight.

Listed below are the six artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA.  They are all far sweeter than regular sugar; hundreds to thousands of times sweeter! 

Artificial sweetener

Brand names

Sweetness as compared to sugar
Aspartame Equal®, NutraSweet®, others 180 times sweeter than sugar
Acesulfame-K Sunett®, Sweet One® 200 times sweeter than sugar
Saccharin Sweet’N Low®, Necta Sweet®, others 300 times sweeter than sugar
Sucralose Splenda® 600 times sweeter than sugar
Neotame No brand names 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar
Advantame No brand names 20,000 times sweeter than sugar
What researchers think may be happening is that regular sugar and artificial sweeteners are processed differently by the brain. When we eat something sweet, it stimulates our brain to eat more. Sugar also activates regions in our brain involved in food reward – like satisfying a “sugar fix”.  However, research is showing that artificial sweeteners do not activate this reward area. The result may be that instead of reducing hunger and sugar cravings, artificial sweeteners potentially intensify hunger and sweet cravings that results in eating and drinking more sugar and calories!

This theory could explain some confusing research results. For example, a 2013 study found that regular consumption of both sugar sweetened and diet soda was associated with an increased risk for Type 2 Diabetes.  In 2007-2008 another study followed over 3,500 people for 7-8 years and found that those who drank artificially sweetened beverages had a 47% higher BMI than those who did not.
The confusion and concern raised by research such as this is reflected in a 2011 statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. It basically says that some use of “non-nutritive” sweeteners might help with weight loss and metabolism, but that this could be offset by an increase in other dietary intake – i.e. eating and drinking more “other stuff”.  It is clear that further research is needed.

For now? It’s probably ok to substitute small amounts of artificially sweetened products for a short period of time while trying to “wean” off a particular habit like soda. However, all artificial sweeteners are best completely avoided in children since long term effects are unknown. As far as drinks are concerned, the best choice for all ages is plain, beautiful water.
2. SE Swithers - Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2013 - Elsevier