Artificial sweeteners are chemicals used as sugar substitutes that are added to mainly processed foods and beverages to enhance their sweetness. Artificial sweeteners are also referred to as intense sweeteners due to their ability to provide a taste several times sweeter than sugar. It takes only a small amount of artificial sweeteners to sweeten food, lowering caloric intake. Our bodies can identify the sweetness in artificial sweeteners but lack the mechanism to break them down to provide calories. This characteristic of artificial sweeteners has made them gain more users in the food industry.
For a long time now, added sugars have been known to cause multiple chronic diseases, which has led major food companies to use artificial sweeteners in their products. Artificial sweeteners have become popular as an alternative to added sugar because they enable food companies to reproduce the sweet taste of sugar in their products without exposing consumers to the dangers of high sugar intake.
There are many types of artificial sweeteners on the market. The most common sweeteners approved for use in the European Union and United States are; aspartame, neotame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin and sucralose.
Artificial sweeteners’ current global market value stands at about $7.2 billion, with a projected 5% annual growth which implies that by 2030 the global market value will be above $10 billion. Thousands of brands contain these sweeteners, especially the ultra-processed foods such as beverages, dairy products, ready-to-go meals and tabletop sweeteners used as sugar replacements.
The European Food Safety Authority, the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives have set acceptable daily limits for each artificial sweetener. Nevertheless, artificial sweeteners continue to elicit controversy in health circles and are constantly under re-evaluation by WHO and other health authorities.
Artificial Sweeteners and Cardiovascular Health
Over the years, the use of artificial sweeteners has been under close scrutiny by researchers due to some experimental studies indicating their impact on cardiovascular health.
Recent findings from a large-scale cohort study revealed a direct link between consuming artificial sweeteners and the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.
The research was carried out by Sorbonne Paris Nord University in France, where experts examined the intake of artificial sweeteners from different dietary sources, such as dairy products, drinks and tabletop sweeteners, and compared it with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
The study examined 103,000 French adults with an average age of 42 years. Their artificial sweetener intake was tracked for six months. There was an average follow-up period of 10 years whereby 1500 cardiovascular events, including strokes, heart attacks, and angina, were recorded.
Based on the study’s results, researchers recommended that artificial sweeteners, present in many foods and beverages, should not be used as a safe alternative to sugar.
Artificial Sweeteners Effects on Weight
There has been concern that artificial sweeteners have the potential to increase appetite and, eventually, weight gain. Some experts have suggested that artificial sweeteners are incapable of activating the food reward pathway, which gives one the feeling of fullness after eating. This inability to activate the food reward pathway can be explained by the fact that sweeteners lack calories like other sugary foods. The brain is thus confused and continues sending hunger signals. Furthermore, some scientists have opined that artificial sweeteners could lead to cravings for sugary foods.
However, some contradicting studies have found that consumers experience less hunger and take in fewer calories after replacing sugary foods with artificially sweetened ones.
Artificial Sweeteners Effects on the Gut
Gut bacteria play a vital role in our health, and poor gut health has been linked to various health problems such as obesity, weak immunity, sleep problems and poor blood sugar. Our food intake, including artificial sweeteners, determines our gut microbiome composition.
A study involving the sweetener saccharin discovered that out of seven healthy participants, four had their gut microbiome severely disrupted. The four were not used to consuming artificial sweeteners. Besides, the four also exhibited poor blood sugar control after 5 days of consuming saccharin.
The use of artificial sweeteners comes with some risks despite the benefits, such as weight loss and control of blood sugar, that have made them popular. The effects of artificial sweeteners vary depending on the individual and the type used. If you are looking for an alternative to artificial sweeteners, you may want to check out natural sweeteners such as stevia, yacon syrup, monk fruit sweetener and date sugar which do not spike blood sugar levels.