Health Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

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From waistline-reducing to carcinogenic, artificial sweeteners have worn many hats. In this article, I will attempt to dispel some myths about this name clouded by much fad and fear. 

Artificial sweeteners are essentially chemicals that trigger the same sweet taste buds sugar trigger but have little or no calories. Because they are actually all different chemicals, their effects on the human body differs too. Right now, the FDA approved of 5 artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose, and one low-calorie sweetener: stevia. Most of them remain unmetabolized, but some do change slightly, therefore giving a small amount of calories. Most are discovered on accident when researchers lick chemicals off their fingers.

There has been worries about artificial sweeteners causing cancer due to studies from the 1970s that found an association between artificial sweeteners consumption and bladder cancer in rats. The methods of the study, however, were questioned, and its conclusion was not backed up by replicated studies. Additionally, it was discovered that when the lab rats were fed the same amount of Vitamin C, bladder cancer rate also rose. It was concluded that rats process some chemicals differently from humans, and that is the reason for bladder damage. Concerns about brain tumors were also raised but later disproved. With the evidence available now, there is no association between artificial sweeteners and any health damage of this sort. Artificial sweeteners are examined and regulated by the FDA.

Despite the absence of correlation between consumption of artificial sweeteners and cancer rate, there are still some health concerns. Correlation between artificial sweetener consumption and higher risk of metabolic syndrome, like type 2 diabetes and obesity, has been repeated shown. One theory is that ingesting artificial sweeteners disrupts with humans’ hunger-cue system and sugar processing system. When the brain receives the sweet taste signal, it prepares to process sugars. But when the food is artificial sweeteners, there is nothing to process, therefore overtime, the brain learns to not trust these signals, possibly making people consume even more food. Another explanation is that artificial sweeteners are generally much sweeter than sugar: saccharin is 600 times sweeter, while neotame is 7,000-13,000 times sweeter.  With people experiencing more sweet taste than they would if they only ingest sugar, their taste buds dull and cause individuals to acquire an even stronger preference for sweetness, meaning healthy food becomes even more tasteless.

There has been much controversy around the health effects of artificial sweeteners, with some people jumping right on the train when they hear that “sugar with no calories” and others sprinting away at the first sight of the word “cancer.” The complete picture, however, is much more complicated and still being discovered. When encountering popular health and diet trends, it is crucial to remember that people can jump to conclusions quickly and spread false information, and that evidence-based judgements takes much more time and peer-reviewed, replicated studies to create.

Featured Image via Live the Live

About the author

Jenny Tang is a 16 year old boarder from Sunnyvale, California. She loves learning about anything and everything, with a special passion for math and science, philosophy, and visual art. Her perfect afternoon involves chocolate, jazz music, and a good intellectual discussion. She may or may not study UX Design in college and hopes to change the world with her knowledge.

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