By Renata Trister DO
The health risks surrounding high sugar foods are well known. As a result many health conscious people are turning to artificial sweeteners as a healthy alternative. The benefits of artificial sweeteners have been controversial ever since saccharin, the first no calorie artificial sweetener, was discovered in 1878. Even then, many questioned whether these man made sweeteners were actually safe. Saccharin (sweet & low) was discovered by a chemist working with coal tar, a carcinogenic material. Nearly 150 years—and an infinite number of conflicting studies—later, the issue still debated. Saccharin has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
Cancer concerns aside, researchers are finding new reasons that these no calorie sweeteners are causing undue health risks without fulfilling the promise of helping you lose weight.
Artificial sweeteners, even natural ones like stevia, which comes from an herb, are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda, is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Evidence suggests that exposing your taste buds to these high-intensity sweeteners makes them less receptive to natural sources of sweetness. This dulls the taste buds making one more likely to seek out sweeter and sweeter foods.
The gut gets confused when exposed to zero-calorie-but-super-sweet artificial sweeteners. The sweet taste sends a signal to your gut that something high calorie is on its way, so your gut anticipates foods that are sweet and high in calories. When these foods never actually arrive, your gut doesn’t utilize the foods efficiently, and that causes a cascading effect that interferes with your body’s hunger signals.
Part of that cascading effect has to do with the hormone insulin. When you taste sweet foods, even if they have zero calories, your body still releases insulin as if you’d eaten sugar. Insulin leads to blood sugar spikes, which increase cravings.
It’s not just a biochemical reaction that leads artificial sweeteners to pack on the pounds. Artificially sweetened foods trick people into eating more because of the way they feel in your mouth. The taste and feel of food in our mouth influences our learned ability to match our caloric intake with our caloric need.
High fat, high sugar foods taste both sweet and dense, signaling to your brain that they’re high calories. But artificially sweetened foods often have a thinner consistency and texture than sugar-sweetened foods and thus, aren’t as satisfying.
Diet soda drinkers have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It is not fully clear why this is so. A study from the University of Texas found that people who drank diet soda were 65 percent more likely to be overweight than people who drank no soda and they were more likely to be overweight than people who drank regular soda. There is a possibility that gut bacteria are able to make medium chain fatty acids from artificial sweeteners, contributing to calorie count and disruption of gut flora.
In a 2009 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Swedish researchers detected sucralose and acesulfame K in treated wastewater, including samples that were pulled from a municipal water-supply source. They also noted that the artificial sweeteners hadn’t degraded in wastewater sludge after a period of seven hours. These sweeteners are now showing up in our rivers and streams.
MOST OF THESE SWEETENERS ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED
Sucralose, aspartame, neotame, and erythritol can all be made from corn, soy, or sugar beets. In the United States, the vast majority of those three crops have been genetically altered to resist or produce harmful pesticides.