I’ve always been suspicious of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, whose flavor is so bitter to me that I taste it in minuscule quantities undetected by the normal palate. I argue regularly with my family about whether they should drink diet soda and eat “Light” yogurt.
Far be it from me to base my opinions purely on taste — or on junk science. I set out to do a little research: Do artificial sweeteners do more harm than good?
The site PopSugar has a great break-down on the pros and cons of different artificial sweeteners. The most disturbing fact I learned was that Stevia, the new darling of sugar substitutes, is sold as a dietary supplement and is therefore not regulated by the FDA.
For the rest, the Mayo Clinic says sugar substitutes like aspartame (Nutrasweet), saccharine (Sweet n Low) and sucralose (Splenda) are safe:
“There’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women.”
So far so good.
The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
I dug a little deeper, however, and found a post from the Harvard Health Blog (published by Harvard Medical School) entitled “Artificial sweeteners: sugar free but at what cost?” that began to confirm my suspicions. It claims, in short, that sugar substitutes have three detrimental effects:
- Since artificial sweeteners are stronger than naturally occurring sugar, they might change the way you taste food, leaving fruits and vegetables tasteless by comparison. As a result, you’ll be less likely to reach for healthy produce and more likely to stick with nutritionless junk food.
- Artificial sweeteners may prevent you from associating sweetness with caloriesand thus lead you to ingest more. In fact, “Participants in the San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda.”
- Artificial sweeteners may be addictive. “In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, most chose saccharin.” Yikes.
Taking the Long View on Aspartame
The New York Times Well blog also tackled the issue of artificial sweeteners last year in a piece called “Choosing a Sugar Substitute.” In it, Dr. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, concludes that diet sodas are less bad than sugar sodas based on available evidence. But he cautions that harmful effects sometimes take a while to show up:
“[I]f you smoke cigarettes, the lung cancer risk doesn’t go up for 30 years. And that’s a really powerful carcinogen. A lot of things don’t show up for several decades…. It took us about 90 years to discover [trans fat] was a big problem. It’s a bit sobering how long that took.”
Dr. Willett likens diet soda to a “nicotine patch” that should be used to help wean you off full-sugar soda, rather than an acceptable alternative.
I think I’ll stick with water.
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