diabetes in the news

artificial sweeteners

Sweet as Sugar! The Latest Scoop on Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners have been around for more than 100 years. The question still remains; “How safe are they?”

Saccharin was the first non-nutritive sweetener (NNS) and it was originally produced in 1879. During World War II its use became widespread due to a shortage of sugar. In the 1960’s it was promoted to help with weight loss and used as a sugar substitute for those with diabetes. There have since been a variety of NNS that are approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). NNSs are a popular substitute for sugar because of their sweet flavor. They contain little or no calories or nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Artificial Sweeteners

The FDA has approved 8 different Sugar Substitutes – Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

  • Aspartame is used as a tabletop sweetener. It is found in foods such as sugar-free sodas, cereals, yogurt, desserts, and sugar-free gum.
  • Acesulfame potassium is usually combined with other NNS and found in sugar-free sodas.
  • Neotame is not as common as other NNS. It is found in low-calorie foods and beverages.
  • Saccharin is the oldest NNS on the market. It is used as a tabletop sweetener.
  • Sucralose can be used as a replacement for sugar in cooking and baking. It is frequently used as a tabletop sweetener and found in canned fruits, dairy products and syrups.
  • Stevia is extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, originating in South America. It is used in teas and juices and also as a tabletop sweetener.
  • Luo han guo is made from crushed monk fruit. It is the newest NNS on the market but has been used in China for almost 1,000 years. It is usually blended with other NNS.
  • Advantame is the newest NNS approved by the FDA. It is not commonly used at this time.

Since the production of Saccharin, NNS have been the topic of debate. Many studies have been conducted on several of the NNS currently approved by the FDA. One current study of interest looked at the impact NNS have on gut microbiome which can then affect blood glucose levels (2). Because NNS are chemically inactive (not broken down and digested) it was thought that they had no impact on the body. This particular study found that some participants had alterations in their microbiome from ingesting NNS. This impacted their blood glucose, causing it to go higher than normal.

One explanation may be that the bacteria in our body can recognize a chemical (the NNS) and it will change its behavior. The study did not show long-term results and the impact varied between individuals. There is more research that still needs to be done in order to determine solid results and effects over time.  It is also important to note that this particular study does not show that NNS are worse for us than sugar when it comes to health outcomes, especially for those with diabetes and blood sugar management. It would also be interesting to see results from different geographical areas, in relation to genetics, and nutritional status. Those individuals who have consumed NNS for many years could possibly have adapted their microbiome over time.

Pros-consPros and Cons to consider when choosing between an NNS or substitutes such as sugar, honey and agave nectar.

NNS can help with weight control prevention of tooth decay and have a pleasant taste. For someone with diabetes, they are an effective alternative choice for foods that would otherwise raise blood sugars extremely fast. However, frequent consumption may cause an inadequate caloric intake in growing children and often replaces nutritional beverages such as low-fat milk. Some NNS are unstable when exposed to high temperatures such as when baking and can alter finished results. NNS found in soda can cause the drink to expire sooner than those sweetened with sugar.

As with the study mentioned and previous findings, NNS should be consumed in moderation until further research has taken place to show otherwise. The FDA has guidelines for each approved NNS for safe daily intake limits. These are far below what the average person would consume each day. However, it is always good to be aware of research being done and what the results show.

Articles mentioned:

  1. Sugar Substitutes.” Cleveland Clinic.
  2. Brooks, Megan. “Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Harmless?Medscape, Medscape, 24 Aug. 2022.