By Kristina Isaac, RD

These days many of us are looking for ways to keep the sweet while cutting the calories in our diet, whether we’re trying to lose a few pounds or manage a health condition such as diabetes. Artificial sweeteners – think aspartame or the sucralose in Splenda® – are one way to do this. However, there’s a lot of suspicion and fear when it comes to these sweet substances.

A lot of research has been, and is being, done on artificial sweeteners. I’ve sifted through the research (so you don’t have to!) and have come to some conclusions on what artificial sweeteners won’t do, what they might do and what you should do when it comes to your health.

What artificial sweeteners won’t do

Current research does not support any link between artificial sweeteners and cancer or any other serious health conditions. Rest assured that these studies typically use amounts of sweeteners at, or above, the high end of the acceptable daily intake, which translates into a lot of sweetener. So why the concern?

You may have heard of a study from the ‘70s that linked saccharin with bladder cancer in rats or a European study from 2005 that cautioned that aspartame might be related to cancer. However, more recent research found that the first study was not relevant to humans. And, scientists found a number of issues with the European study (see here).

It’s easy to forget the safety measures that go into our food system in Canada. But we can rest assured that new foods and food ingredients, including artificial sweeteners available on grocery shelves, receive a thorough assessment before they are deemed safe to eat. If you’re curious about the safety of aspartame or saccharin specifically, Health Canada has some useful information here.

What artificial sweeteners might do

Here the research on artificial sweeteners gets a little muddy.

  • Sweet cravings – Can sweeteners make you crave sweets? Maybe, maybe not. There is no solid proof. A review from 2015 looked at observational and lab studies and concluded there was no solid relationship between artificial sweeteners and a desire for sweets. It’s unlikely you’ll develop a sweets addiction from eating foods with artificial sweeteners alone.
  • Weight loss – Studies looking at sweeteners and weight have found that some people gain weight when using sweeteners while some lose weight. Why the difference? Consider that sweeteners are only one factor among many when it comes to weight loss. Substituting calorie-free sweeteners for sugar won’t make up for lack of exercise, overeating or other unhealthy lifestyle habits.
  • The microbiome – The gut is making big news these days, and while research on our gut bacteria is just beginning, it is thought provoking. When it comes to artificial sweeteners, there have been many animal studies and very few human studies done. This means we need to be cautious with the results and can’t say yet whether sweeteners are good or bad for the gut.
  • What should you do?

    At this point, you may be more confused than when we started. We’ve said that artificial sweeteners are approved as safe to eat, that they may or may not help your weight loss efforts and that they may impact your gut health. So what’s a person to do? Look at the big picture.
    Chewing on a couple pieces of sugar-free gum or having an occasional diet soda is not going to be the number one factor influencing your health. Overall diet, physical activity, genetics and environment all play a role.

    However, if foods containing artificial sweeteners are a staple in your diet, (e.g. you drink a case of diet soda in half a week), you may want to reassess your eating habits and make some changes. Consider that artificial sweeteners could have effects that we don’t fully understand or know about yet (e.g. impacting your gut health). They also might be replacing truly nutritious foods in your day (e.g. eating extra sugar-free cookies instead of an apple). A sugar free food isn’t necessarily a nutritious choice.

    Yes, this sounds like the typical moderation spiel, but it holds true. The bottom line: steer clear of dramatic claims that artificial sweeteners will sabotage your health, but also make sure they aren’t replacing nutritious foods in your diet.

    This article was originally posted on Nourish Move Thrive Artificial Sweeteners: More than just calorie free?