You probably know the negative health effects of eating too much sugar, especially "added sugars" like in soda pop, candy, baked goods, and many commercially-available cereals, just to name a few.
Added sugar is hiding just about everywhere in the grocery store.
Yes, ingesting refined sugar spikes your blood sugar and insulin, and increases your risk for a whole host of issues.
A while ago, one of the food industry’s responses to the demand for lower-calorie foods that still taste great, was artificial sweeteners.
The idea behind them is that you can still get the sweetness, without the calories; like when you have a “diet pop” versus a regular one.
Theoretically, this was going to help people maintain a healthy body weight, and hopefully not increase anyone’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, or obesity.
But, it doesn’t always work out the way we think it will...
Types of artificial sweeteners
Sugar substitutes fall into several categories, but what they all have in common is that they have a sweet taste and fewer calories than plain sugar.
Today we'll specifically discuss "artificial sweeteners," which are synthetic chemicals where a tiny bit tastes very sweet.
They're also known as "non-nutritive sweeteners," and include things like:
Saccharin (Sweet & Low),
Aspartame (Equal & NutraSweet), and
Health effects of artificial sweeteners
Negative health effects from artificial sweeteners are cited all over the place, and while many studies show effects, others don't.
Cancer? Maybe yes, maybe no. Heart disease? Maybe yes, maybe no. Not to mention that much of the research has been on animals, which may or may not translate to people.
I did want to point out one ironic thing, to do with artificial sweeteners and weight.
Another study has shown an increased risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes for those who consume diet drinks every day.
While these results don't apply equally to everyone, they do somehow seem ironic, don't they?
How do artificial sweeteners affect blood sugar and insulin?
Artificial sweeteners won't raise your blood sugar levels in the short-term.
So, a can of diet coke, for example, won't cause a rise in blood sugar.
Mice, when fed artificial sweeteners for 11 weeks, had negative changes in their gut bacteria that caused increased blood sugar levels.
When they implanted the bacteria from these mice into germ-free mice, they also had increases in blood sugar levels.
Interestingly, the scientists were able to reverse the increase in blood sugar levels by changing the gut bacteria back to normal.
However, these results haven't been tested or replicated in humans.
There is only one observational study in humans that has suggested a link between aspartame and changes to gut bacteria.
The long-term effects of artificial sweeteners in humans are therefore unknown.
It is theoretically possible that artificial sweeteners can raise blood sugar levels by negatively affecting gut bacteria, but it hasn't been tested.
Studies on artificial sweeteners and insulin levels have shown mixed results.
The effects also vary between different types of artificial sweeteners.
Acesulfame-K raises insulin in rats, but no human studies are available.
Diabetics have abnormal blood sugar control due to a lack of insulin and/or insulin resistance.
In the short-term, artificial sweeteners won't raise your blood sugar levels, unlike high intakes of sugar. They are considered safe for diabetics.
However, the health implications of long-term use are still unknown.
How do artificial sweeteners affect blood pressure?
Let me guess, you’re most worried about drinking diet soda and the impact on your blood pressure. Let’s answer that question.
It’s unlikely that the diet soda you drink is causing your high blood pressure.
A number of studies have examined this topic, and there is no evidence to suggest a link between regularly drinking diet soda and an increase in blood pressure.
In fact, some research findings seem to suggest the opposite. Diet soda actually may contribute to lowering blood pressure especially if you are making the switch from regular full sugar soda.
The three artificial sweeteners primarily used in soft drinks and diet sodas are stevia, sucralose and aspartame.
Stevia, a natural product, has been shown to possibly lower blood pressure in people who have high blood pressure.
Sucralose, which has almost the same molecular structure as table sugar, does not have much, if any, effect on blood pressure.
The bulk of diet sodas are made with aspartame. Aspartame does not appear to cause high blood pressure either.
For example, in one study looking at a possible connection between the two, rats were fed either sugary foods or large doses of aspartame.
The results showed that blood pressure went down in the group that consumed the artificial sweetener.
The most telling study, though, was done in humans. It tested blood pressure in four groups of overweight participants.
Each group drank one liter of either regular soda with sugar, diet soda, milk or water every day for six months.
Blood pressure in those who consumed the diet soda and the milk came down by 10 to 15 percent, compared to those who drank sugared soda.
As you are considering the amount of diet soda you drink each day, it is worthwhile to note that some population studies, called epidemiologic research, show a relationship between the regular use of diet soda and obesity.
However, these are associations only. Some nonmedical literature you see may interpret those findings to mean that diet soda somehow causes these medical conditions.
But, this type of research does not pinpoint the cause of the disorders. It only identifies factors that may be related to them.
How do artificial sweeteners affect our bodies?
Now that’s a million-dollar question!
There are so many ideas out there to try to explain it, but the reality is we don’t know for sure; plus, it might play out differently in different people.
Is it because people feel that they can eat cake because they’ve switched to diet soda?
Perhaps it’s because the sweeteners change the taste preferences so that fruit starts to taste worse, and veggies taste terrible?
Maybe artificial sweeteners increase our cravings for more (real) sweets?
It can be that the sweet taste of these sweeteners signals to our body to release insulin to lower our blood sugar; but, because we didn’t actually ingest sugar, our blood sugar levels get too low, to the point where we get sugar cravings.
Some even say (and at least one animal study suggests) that saccharin may inspire addictive tendencies toward it.
Maybe there is even a more complex response that involves our gut microbes and how they help to regulate our blood sugar levels.
Understand that added sugar is not good for you, but the solution may not be to replace them all with artificial sweeteners.
I highly recommend reducing your sugar intake, so you naturally re-train your palate and start enjoying the taste of real food that isn't overly sweet.
This way you're reducing your intake of added sugar, as well as not needing to replace it with artificial sweeteners.
Try having ½ teaspoon less of sugar in your hot morning drink. Try reducing a ¼ cup of the sugar called for in some recipes. Try diluting juice with water.
Your body will thank you!
Recipe (naturally sweetened): Sweet Enough Matcha Latte
1 teaspoon matcha powder
1.5 cup almond milk, unsweetened
1-2 teaspoons maple syrup or honey (optional)
1. Heat almond milk and maple syrup/honey (if using) in a small pot.
2. Add matcha powder to cup.
3. When almond milk is hot, add about a ¼ cup to matcha and stir to combine.
4. Add rest of the milk to cup.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: You can steep a chai tea bag in the milk if you prefer chai tea over matcha.