By Rachel Welch
Before we begin, please note: This information is not intended as medical advice. Individuals with specific health conditions should consult healthcare professionals before making dietary changes.
Sweets are a beloved treat for many and have long been an exciting component of parties, holidays, and special occasions. While sweetened products like cookies, ice cream, cake, and candy are linked to joyful childhood memories and provide a sense of nostalgia for many of us, they have unfortunately become a pariah in the world of dietary nutrition.
The old, established, villain for this is processed sugar, which contributes to inflammation in the body and can lead to other undesirable health effects. But other players have emerged, and the scientific community has been researching if these additions to the sweetener world are friends or foes. While some are safer than others, it appears that most of them shouldn't rank as a true friend to healthy living.
Sugar and Sickness
Insulin Resistance: Excessive consumption of processed sugar (particularly refined carbohydrates and high-fructose corn syrup) can lead to insulin resistance. This condition occurs when the body's cells become less responsive to insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance triggers a cascade of metabolic changes that promote inflammation.
Increased Production of Pro-Inflammatory Molecules: High sugar intake can stimulate the production of pro-inflammatory molecules, such as cytokines and chemokines, in the body. These molecules are involved in immune responses and can initiate or exacerbate inflammation.
Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): When sugar molecules bind to proteins or fats in glycation, they form compounds known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs can promote oxidative stress and inflammation, contributing to tissue damage and chronic inflammatory conditions.
Imbalanced Gut Microbiota: Excessive sugar consumption can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, leading to a condition called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is associated with chronic inflammation and various health problems. Harmful bacteria in the gut can thrive on sugar, while beneficial bacteria may be suppressed, negatively impacting the gut microbiota's overall health.
Increased Free Radical Production: Sugar metabolism in the body can generate excess free radicals, highly reactive molecules that can damage cells and tissues. This oxidative stress can trigger inflammatory responses and contribute to chronic inflammation.
Activation of Inflammatory Pathways: High sugar intake can activate specific inflammatory pathways, such as the nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB) pathway. NF-kB plays a key role in regulating the expression of genes involved in inflammation. Excessive sugar consumption can trigger NF-kB activation, increasing inflammation in various tissues.
Artificial Sweeteners: Savior or Saboteur?
With all of the downsides to processed sugar, it’s no wonder other options have been introduced. Artificial sweeteners have become a popular alternative to sugar, offering sweetness without calories.
However, concerns about artificial sweetener safety and potential toxicity have sparked debate.
To understand the truth behind these claims, let's delve into the research on artificial sweeteners and their effects on human health.
First, it is helpful to understand what happens to your body when you consume artificial sweeteners. Let’s start from the inside out.
Your Body on Artificial Sweeteners
When artificial sweeteners are consumed, they undergo several processes in the body. Here's an overview of the typical journey of artificial sweeteners and their effects:
Absorption and Metabolism:
Impact on Blood Sugar Levels:
Effects on Appetite and Food Cravings:
Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is crucial due to its profound impact on overall well-being. The gut microbiome influences digestion, nutrient absorption, immune function, and mental health. Through the brain-gut connection, the microbiome communicates with the brain, affecting mood, cognition, and behavior. Nurturing a balanced gut microbiome promotes optimal physical and mental health, underscoring the significance of this intricate relationship.
A History of Artificial Sweeteners
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and other regulatory bodies have evaluated artificial sweeteners. Overall, they have approved the following artificial sweeteners:
Other artificial sweeteners on the market include high-intensity, plant-based sweeteners like Stevia and monk fruit. Based on rigorous scientific assessments, the U.S. FDA and EFSA authorities have approved using these artificial sweeteners within specified acceptable daily intake (ADI) limits.
Potential Health Safety Concerns:
While some scientific evidence supports artificial sweeteners' safety within approved (and very minimal) consumption limits, other studies have raised concerns about the potential adverse effects of artificial sweeteners. These alarming studies have been published as recently as the past few months.
A study published in February 2023 explored erythritol’s potential to increase the risk for cardiovascular issues. Researchers found that erythritol is associated with significant adverse cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart attack, or death. They theorize this is due to erythritol’s lingering effect since it tends to stay in the body for more than two days.
Based on their observations in trials with 4,000 human participants and several rodent participants, the sweetener is associated with blood clot formation in both humans and rodents, which can lead to cardiac events.
Aspartame and Ace-K
Another study from March 2022 evaluated over 100,000 French adults’ dietary intake of sweeteners and evaluated their cancer risk with Cox proportional hazards models. They found that artificial sweeteners, with special attention to aspartame and Ace-K, are associated with a higher cancer risk than non-consumers.
Sweeteners and Gut Health
Research has also delved into the possibility of artificial sweeteners negatively impacting gut health and microbiome. A North American study from 2021 found that there was an observed relationship between artificial sweeteners and inflammatory gut changes among patients with chronic digestive and inflammatory disorders. While they theorize that this could negatively impact individuals with chronic gut inflammation, they stipulate that further research is needed.
Artificial Sweeteners, Safe or Not?
Based on extensive research and safety assessments conducted by regulatory authorities, artificial sweeteners are considered safe for human consumption when used in moderation.
They offer a viable option for reducing sugar intake and managing weight without compromising taste.
While moderation is a critical factor meant to temper many of the sweeteners’ theorized issues, it is important to consider the hazards as artificial sweeteners are so new to our bodies. The long term consequences of frequent ingestion is, well, largely uncalculated over the span of years.
According to an article in the scientific journal Frontiers, while consuming artificial sweeteners can be enjoyable, consuming too much can be dangerous.
Artificial sweeteners have fewer calories and can help people lose weight and lower blood sugar in the short-term, but overstimulation of the pancreas and resulting insulin resistance can definitely reverse any shorterm positives.
“Over-consumption of artificial sugars alters the body’s ability to process real sugar, through changes in the gut microbiota and insulin levels [via its impact on the pancreas]. This can lead to negative health outcomes such as type 2 diabetes—while at the same time making people crave more sugar, making them want to eat more food, and potentially causing them to gain more weight,” according to the article conclusion.
So, what’s the takeaway? Research continues, but it's wise to steer clear as much as possible.
The Short and “Artificially” Sweet Answer
The health risks of processed sugar have proven to be scientifically replicable, confirmed over years of study, and consistent.
Meanwhile, research of artificial sweeteners is relatively new, since so many of the sweeteners haven’t been on the market that long.
Current data suggests that both artificial sweeteners and processed sugar should be consumed in moderation (at best). Ingesting artificial sweeteners often makes people crave real sugar even more, but and this is a difficult but for many to accept: cutting out both processed sugars and artificial sweeteners from your diet can often decrease sugar cravings in just one week.
As with any food or additive, moderation and individual tolerance should be considered.
Please note: This information is a general overview and should not replace personalized medical advice. Individuals with specific health conditions should consult with healthcare professionals for tailored guidance.