8 Ways Artificial Sweeteners Are Bad For You: Why ‘Sugar-Free’ Isn’t Always Healthier

Millions of people consume artificial sweeteners on a daily basis. From diet sodas to candies, it’s hard to avoid the synthetic sugar substitute. But it might be time to avoid sodas and food containing artificial sweeteners.

Numerous studies over the years identify a variety of potential harmful effects from artificial sweeteners. From increasing one’s risk for cancer to developing diabetes, artificial sweeteners can be worse for your health than you might realize.

Be mindful of the ingredients you’re consuming in products that claim to be “healthy,” health experts and nutritionists suggest. Many of these products purporting to be better alternatives may be filled with artificial sweeteners linked to so many other conditions.

Using studies published on StudyFinds, here are eight ways artificial sweeteners can be dangerous to your health.

Woman putting sugar or artificial sweetener in her coffee
(© Andrii – stock.adobe.com)

Artificial sweetener linked to increased cancer risk

If you think picking a packet of zero-calorie Splenda is going to let you have your cake and eat it too, think again. Research from France reveals that consuming common artificial sweeteners can increase your risk for cancer.

The researchers analyzed data from 102,865 adults living in France who were already taking part in an ongoing nutrition study since 2009. People self-reported their medical history, sociodemographic information, diet, lifestyle, and health data. The team took people’s data on artificial sweetener intake from their dietary records.

A follow-up appointment with study participants helped in collecting any new diagnoses of cancer. Considering different factors that could play a role in cancer — including a person’s age, body mass index, and smoking habits — researchers performed a statistical analysis to calculate the relationship between artificial sweeteners and cancer.

People who consumed large amounts of artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame and acesulfame-K, had a higher risk of developing cancer than people who did not consume artificial sweeteners. Specifically, the researchers observed a greater number of breast cancer and obesity-related cancer diagnoses among these individuals.

Diet soda can cause weight gain

Diet soda is often a go-to beverage for many people trying to lose weight. Unfortunately, a study finds drinks containing the artificial sweetener sucralose may be hurting the dieting efforts for both women and the obese. Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC say diet sodas actually cause the brain to experience more food cravings than normal sugary beverages.

Study authors note this is the largest study to date examining how artificial sweeteners, or nonnutritive sweeteners (NNS), influence brain activity and appetite. Over 40 percent of U.S. adults drink some variety of NNSs as a calorie-free alternative to regular soda. Although some dieters do lose weight while drinking diet soda, researchers say the health pros and cons of artificial sweeteners are still unclear. Scientists continue to debate how much of an impact these substances have on appetite, glucose metabolism, and body weight.

Diet soda and Diet Coke soda cans
(Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald on Shutterstock)

Researchers examined 74 participants during three experiments measuring their brain activity while drinking various beverages. The volunteers varied from healthy weight individuals, to overweight, to obese dieters. The group drank 300 milliliters of a drink containing sucrose (regular table sugar), a diet drink sweetened with the NNS sucralose, and water.

Two hours later, study authors used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to examine each person’s brain activity as they viewed pictures of high-calorie foods like a burger or donut. Specifically, researchers focused on brain regions responsible for appetite and food cravings as the group looked at these tasty images.

The team also measured each person’s blood sugar levels, insulin, other metabolic hormones in the blood, and the amount of food each person ate at a snack buffet following the brain scans. Results reveal that both women and obese participants experienced increased activity in the brain areas controlling food cravings and appetite after drinking diet soda-sucralose beverages. The activity was greater than when these individuals drank the real sugar beverage.

Sugar-free alternative might cause healthy gut bacteria to damage intestine

Artificial sweeteners are a common sight on diner and restaurant tables across the country. Now, a study may make you think twice about reaching for a few packets. Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University report that common artificial sweeteners may cause perfectly healthy gut bacteria to become diseased and invade the gut wall, possibly leading to more serious health issues.

More specifically, this research is the first ever to document the pathogenic effects of saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame (three of the most popular artificial sweeteners) on two varieties of gut bacteriaE. coli (Escherichia coli) and E. faecalis (Enterococcus faecalis).

Prior research had already shown that artificial sweeteners have the ability to change the number and type of bacteria in the gut. This latest molecular work, however, takes things a step further by revealing that sweeteners can also make gut bacteria infectious. Once diseased, the bacteria attach themselves to, invade, and ultimately kill Caco-2 cells lining the wall of the intestine.

Artificially sweetened drinks bad for your heart

Sugary drinks are a popular target of health experts and even local governments. While many try to curb the public’s intake of sugar, a study finds a common alternative to these drinks may be just as bad. Researchers in France say artificially sweetened drinks also increase the risk for heart disease.

Artificial sweeteners have been considered a healthier choice than soft drinks and other beverages with a high volume of sugar. However, looking at data from the French NutriNet-Santé study, the study authors examined how artificially sweetened drinks impact cardiovascular health.

Previous studies have linked sugary beverages to obesity and increased risks for cancer, diabetes, and even dementia. The effects of sugar have also been connected to poor cognitive development among children breastfed by parents who consume these drinks.

“Our study suggests artificially sweetened beverages may not be a healthy substitute for sugar drinks, and these data provide additional arguments to fuel the current debate on taxes, labeling and regulation of sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages,” says lead author Eloi Chazelas a member of the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team at Sorbonne Paris Nord University.

Using low-calorie sweeteners while pregnant may be harmful to babies

Low-calorie sweeteners are supposed to be a healthy choice, but for pregnant women, consuming such products may be detrimental to their unborn child. Babies born to mothers who used low-calorie sweeteners over the course of their pregnancy exhibited increased body fat and disrupted gut microbiota, according to a study.

While some extra fat is certainly reason enough for prospective moms to avoid these products, an infant’s gut bacteria is incredibly important. If the trillions of bacteria and micro-organisms present in a baby’s stomach are out of whack, it could lead to serious health risks and a variety of diseases.

Pregnant woman eating chocolate bar
(© eszekglasner – stock.adobe.com)

Scientists at the University of Calgary warn that consuming low-calorie sweeteners while pregnant can have serious negative consequences for a child’s critical first few years of life.

“Low-calorie sweeteners are considered safe to consume during pregnancy and lactation, however evidence is emerging from human studies to suggest they may increase body weight and other cardiovascular risk factors,” explains Dr. Raylene Reimer, a University of Calgary professor and co-author of the study. “Even stevia, which is hailed as a natural alternative to aspartame and other low calorie artificial sweeteners, showed a similar impact on increasing offspring obesity risk in early life.”

Sugar-free products can worsen diabetes risk

In recent decades, low-calorie sugar-free sweetening alternatives like Splenda have risen in both popularity and use. These artificial sweeteners are marketed as a healthy, less-fattening option for people looking to cut down on sugar consumption without sacrificing some sweet taste. Now, an unsettling study conducted at the University of South Australia finds that the growing use of these products may be contributing to more type 2 diabetes diagnoses.

Furthermore, the research team say that people who use such products are actually more likely to put on extra weight, which is the exact opposite of what most people expect when they opt to use some in their coffee, tea, etc.

These findings, led by professor Peter Clifton, are also in direct contrast to a number of controlled clinical trails that had concluded artificial sweeteners can help with weight loss. According to professor Clifton, there has been an incredible 200% increase in low-calorie sweetener (LCS) use over the past 20 years among children, and a 54% increase among adults within the same time frame.

After examining data on 5,158 American adults over a period of seven years, researchers discovered that those who frequently consumed low-calorie sweeteners actually gained more weight than adults who stayed away from such products.

Harmful to metabolism, too

Artificial sweeteners have an effect on the body’s metabolism and can lead to excessive fat accumulation in people, especially those who are already obese, according to a study.

Dr. Sabyasachi Sen, an associate professor of medicine and endocrinology at George Washington University, led the study, explaining in a press release that while many people rely on these artificial sweeteners as a low-calorie alternative to natural sweeteners, “there is increasing scientific evidence that these sweeteners promote metabolic dysfunction.”

Sen and his colleagues tested the popular low-calorie sweetener sucralose on stem cells taken from human fat cells. They placed these cells in Petri dishes for 12 days, adding 0.2 millimolars of sucralose. The dosage is based on the concentration of sucralose in the bloodstreams of people with high consumption levels of the artificial sweetener — about four cans of diet soda per day.

The researchers observed increased expression of genes that produce fat and inflammation. They also saw an increased accumulation of fat droplets in the cells, especially when they increased the concentration of sucralose.

Sugar substitutes linked to heart-related issues

Using artificial sweeteners may be one way to limit sugar intake, but a study finds that they’re still linked to weight gain, along with other heart-related ailments.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada reviewed the results of 37 previous longitudinal studies that had examined 400,000 individuals over the course of a decade, hoping to determine the effects of artificial sweeteners on various health markers.

Instead of being associated with weight loss, it turns out that common sugar substitutes, including sucralose and aspartame, were actually linked to weight gain, the researchers found.

Other common health issues, such as increased risk of weight gain and obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease were also more prevalent among those who frequently consumed artificial sweeteners.

As always, check with your doctor before making changes to your diet.

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About the Author

Matt Higgins

Matt Higgins worked in national and local news for 15 years. He started out as an overnight production assistant at Fox News Radio in 2007 and ended in 2021 as the Digital Managing Editor at CBS Philadelphia. Following his news career, he spent one year in the automotive industry as a Digital Platforms Content Specialist contractor with Subaru of America and is currently a freelance writer and editor for StudyFinds. Matt believes in facts, science and Philadelphia sports teams crushing his soul.

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Comments

  1. Thank you to the sugar industry for sponsoring this study…
    …are you kidding?
    Look at the proven overwhelming bad health effects of consuming sugar.

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