There is no convincing evidence that artificial sweeteners are dangerous and you’d need to consume up to 75 packets per day before suffering health consequences, according to experts.
But experts warn the evidence is often indirect and the way in which the studies have been conducted have been flawed – often focusing on participants already at risk of health problems due to old age and preexisting conditions.
The FDA states that all six approved artificial sweeteners are safe to consume — up to 75 packs a day. A standard 12-ounce diet Coke contains around five packets of sweeteners, according to the American Cancer Society, meaning you would need to drink five liters a day before experiencing health problems.
Meanwhile, just a few sugar cubes a day have been shown by several decades of research to lead to problems such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and tooth. Sugar, unlike sweeteners, also has calories, so it has a higher risk of obesity when overconsumed.
In recent years a series of scary studies have linked the sugar alternative to a host of conditions, from heart attacks to strokes, diabetes, and even cancer. But experts warn the evidence is often indirect and the way in which the studies have been conducted have been flawed
Kara Burnstine, Nutrition Educator at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, told DailyMail.com that she recommends clients consume no more than 10 to 12 packs of sweetener a day.
‘In our battle against weight gain, artificial sweeteners would seem an effective weapon.
‘They’re calorie-free and sugar-free. Using them to replace sugars in our diet should mean fewer calories consumed, weight loss, and reduced risk of obesity-related diseases,’ Burnstine said.
Also referred to as nonnutritive sweeteners, artificial sweeteners are FDA-regulated food additives that can be 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar.
They activate both sweet and bitter taste receptors, stimulating the brain’s ‘reward’ center.
They also trick the brain by making it believe the body has consumed real sugar, prompting the release of insulin, which burns glucose in the blood.
‘Nutritionally, the artificial sweeteners do not add calories but are made from various chemicals or some (stevia) from plant extracts,’ Anne Lee, assistant professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, told DailyMail.com.
The FDA has deemed the following artificial sweeteners safe to consume: acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose.
This means they are considered non-toxic for human consumption. While these contain few or no calories, they lack valuable nutrients such as vitamins and fiber.
Recent research has stoked fear surrounding artificial sweeteners. A February study found links between artificial sweetener erythritol and an increased risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack or stroke.
The researchers looked at the effect of adding erythritol to whole blood or isolated platelets, or small pieces of cells found in blood to help clot and aid in wound healing.
The researchers noted that erythritol is poorly metabolized and is mostly excreted in the urine.
They also found that circulating levels of multiple polyols, which are commonly found in artificial sweeteners, were associated with increased incidence of cardiovascular events. When present in blood, erythritol made it easier for clotting to occur, could contribute to this cardiac event risk.
However, the majority of the participants were over 60, increasing their existing risk of heart attack or stroke.
Several studies focusing on the negatives of artificial sweeteners have evaluated highly specific populations.
For example, while a study in Biological Psychiatry found a potential link between aspartame and increased risk of depression, the findings were limited to those who already had mood disorders. It could not prove definitely that sweeteners were the cause.
Another study found increased brain activity associated with aspartame, though the participants were specifically children with absence seizures.
Other research has found more widespread benefits.
A review in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, for instance, found no evidence that sucralose causes cancer in humans.
One 2019 study from BMJ examined the effect of consuming artificially sweetened beverage consumption on cancer risk in more than 100,000 participants.
While the researchers found that consuming sugary drinks could increase cancer risk, artificially sweetened drinks did not carry the same risk.
‘There is no convincing evidence that aspartame (Nutrasweet), sucralose (Splenda), or saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) cause disease or pose a direct threat to human health,’ Burnstine said.
Burnstine added artificial sweeteners could aid weight loss when replacing sugar – which could actually lower the risk of health issues.
This includes swapping a can of Coke with Diet Coke or swapping honey for a pack of Splenda.
‘They may be beneficial for blood sugar control and therefore of particular benefit to diabetics when used in place of refined sugars, including fruit juice concentrates,’ Burnstine said.
Lee emphasized that more research is still needed to fully understand the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners – but for now the risks appear overblown.
‘It would be important to have more studies that would look at the groups of sweeteners as a whole and also compared the effects of the various sweeteners on metabolism, microbiome, and long-term health risks to make a final decision,’ she said.
‘It’s important to consider individual health conditions, such as diabetes and metabolism, to determine the safe amount of natural sugar for our bodies,’ Burnstine said.
‘In some cases, artificial sweeteners may be an appropriate option to reduce overall sugar intake and help manage blood glucose levels, while in other cases, natural sweeteners like fruit or honey may be a better choice.’
‘We always recommend naturally sweetened whole foods like fruit over artificially sweetened foods, but a little no-calorie sweetener in your bowl of oatmeal in the morning or an occasional diet soda are always going to be much better choices than pastries or regular sodas,’ Burnstine said.
‘If you choose to use calorie-free sweeteners, choose sucralose or stevia because they have the strongest evidence indicating they are safe,’ Burnstine said.