Sugar is not great for us, we all know that. But what about artificial sweeteners (Ass), so often touted as the benign, “guilt-free” sugar-replacement? At least, that’s what diet drink & processed food manufacturers would have us believe…
The calorie-free, guilt-free, “healthy” substitute?
Everywhere we look, we’re surrounded by low and zero-calorie foods and soft drinks…so shouldn’t obesity rates be falling? Type 2 diabetes? Except they’re not, are they! Turns out, there’s more to maintaining a healthy weight that cutting calories (I mean, go figure!)The science is still evolving but research to date indicates ASs (aspartame, acesulfame K, sucralose, xylitol, stevia etc.) can disrupt normal hormonal and neurological signals that control hunger and satiety (feeling full). They seem to impair glucose tolerance and negatively impact the gut microbiome. Oh, and some might promote some cancers. Not so consequence-free after all…
Hormonal & metabolic impact
Because they taste super-sweet (up to 1000x sweeter than normal sugar, sucrose), our taste buds get stimulated. The brain and body is “tricked” into thinking lots of sugar is coming so ramps up production of fat-storage hormone, insulin. This promotes belly fat.
Ass don’t suppress ghrelin (our satiety hormone). So we don’t receive the normal hormonal signals that we’ve been fed after consuming fake-sweet foods and hunger and calorie consumption can increase.
These mechanisms may partly explain why some studies suggest ASs are just as bad as normal table sugar (sucrose) for increasing risk of weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, despite being calorie free!
ASs are highly addictive. In one alarming study, rats consistently choose ASs over coke (the sorting as opposed to drinking, kind!) despite being programmed to be coke-addicts. Regularly consuming ultra sweet foods (whether that’s from sugar or ASs can modulate our taste buds and light up the reward centre of the brain so that we want and need more of them. We become less able to appreciate natural sweetness in foods (like fruit and vegetables) and may eat less healthy non-sweet foods (a risk with children)
It’s impossible to talk about much in nutrition and health without mentioning our delightful gut bugs tbh, and Ass are no exception. Many are only partially absorbed so reach the colon where they can cause gas, bloating and diarrhoea. More worryingly, recent research points to a negative impact on our microbiome with potential ramifications for metabolic (blood glucose control and weight), immune & mental health.
Emerging evidence links consumption of ASs when pregnant or breastfeeding with taste development in the baby, leading to a preference for sweet tastes and increased weight at 1 year of age.
Hot off the press….We’ve known for decades that e.g. aspartame causes cancer in rats, but health and safety authorities have steadfastly insisted they are safe for us to consume (despite hardly any human studies having been conducted). A brand new, large cohort (102,865 adults) study published a few days ago has found that consumers of ASs have higher risk of overall cancer, breast cancer and obesity-related cancers compared to non-consumers, with aspartame & acesulfame-K especially implicated.
The fact is, Mother Nature is unlikely to be conned quite so easily. Emerging research gives us several reasons why (a little) of the real deal is almost certainly better than a “sugar free” alternative.