If you’re still holding out hope that science will eventually prove artificial sweeteners to be beneficial, or at the very least harmless, you’re likely to be disappointed. Again and again, research shows no-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose cause the same problems as excess sugar, and then some.
According to the latest statistics1 nearly 40 percent of American adults, over 18 percent of teens and nearly 14 percent of young children are now obese, not just overweight, and processed foods and sweetened beverages are clearly driving factors. Unfortunately, many make the mistake of thinking artificially sweetened products are a healthier option as it cuts down your calories, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The international trend of taxing sugary beverages to discourage sugar consumption has also had the unfortunate side effect of causing beverage makers to switch to artificial sweeteners rather than sugar and other calorie-rich sweeteners. However, when it comes to health, artificial sweeteners cause just as many health problems as sugar does.
Artificial Sweeteners Again Linked to Obesity and Diabetes
Over the years, an ever-growing number of studies have shown artificial sweeteners raise your risk of both obesity and Type 2 diabetes — perhaps even to a greater degree than sugar does. Most recently, animal research2,3 presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego again confirmed that artificial sweeteners raise your risk of obesity and diabetes.
The study, which explored how different sweeteners affect the way food is used and stored in the body, and how they affect vascular functioning, found both sugar and artificial sweeteners result in impairments, albeit through different pathways. As noted by the authors:
“This study tested the response of the vascular endothelium in vitro and the in vivo response of a diabetes susceptible … rat model to glucose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium supplementation … Through this set of experiments we have identified unique signatures of alterations in lipid metabolism, among others, following artificial sweetener consumption.
Overall, results of this study suggests that exposure to high glucose and artificial sweetener administration lead to unique mechanisms of vascular impairment and homeostatic alterations that may be important during the onset and progression of diabetes and obesity.”
Sugar Versus Artificial Sweeteners — Different Mechanisms of Action, Similar Results
After being fed a diet high in either artificial sweeteners (aspartame or acesulfame potassium) or sugars (glucose or fructose) for three weeks, detrimental effects were seen in all groups. All had increased blood lipids (fats), but the artificial sweeteners also accumulated in the blood of the animals, which harmed the blood vessel lining to a greater degree. Of the two artificial sweeteners, acesulfame potassium appeared to be the worst.
The results of the study — which used unbiased high-throughput metabolomics, a technique that allows you to investigate how something affects cellular metabolism — indicate that artificial sweeteners alter how your body processes fat and produces energy at the cellular level. So, while operating on completely different chemical pathways, they produce the same kinds of health consequences as sugar.
As noted by lead author Brian Hoffmann, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the Marquette University and Medical College of Wisconsin,4 “In moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar; it is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down.”
Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, wear the machinery down. “Sweeteners kind of trick the body. And then when your body’s not getting the energy it needs — because it does need some sugar to function properly — it potentially finds that source elsewhere,” he says.5
One alternative sugar source is muscle, and indeed, evidence of protein break down was found in the animals’ blood. Essentially, the rats were burning muscle as a source of energy when given artificial sweeteners. Hoffman also notes that this research is different from previous attempts to conclusively tie artificial sweeteners to health problems:
“Most of these sweeteners were approved well before we had the technology to perform studies like my lab is doing. So they weren’t able to look as in-depth at some of the potential effects being caused. By knowing what biochemical changes these are causing through these large-scale studies, we can take an unbiased approach and see what’s changing to give us a better direction.
What I like to tell people is that most things in moderation are going to be fine … It’s when people start to chronically consume these [drinks] — say, a person drinks two, three, four … every day — that we should start to be concerned. Because you’re starting to introduce these biochemical changes and the body has no time to recover.”