For decades, consumers have relied on artificial sweeteners to cut calories or curb the potential development of diabetes. In recent years the number of food products containing these compounds has skyrocketed, bringing these zero-calorie additives under closer scrutiny as both the public and scientific community question the potentially harmful health effects. To date, research has provided mixed results.
Some experts claim that these sweeteners (sucralose, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, and aspartame as the most common ones) could actually be causing weight gain. That seems counterintuitive. Artificial sweeteners have essentially no calories, how can that possibly cause weight gain? Both epidemiological and medical research provide evidence that could have you chucking your Splenda stash in the trash.
Studies indicate that the body's response to certain artificial sweeteners can exacerbate its susceptibility to metabolic syndrome and Type II diabetes. Artificial sweeteners are thought to do this by inducing glucose intolerance through a mechanism that influences the gut microbiome (Suez et al, 2014). What's more, these metabolic perturbations have been seen in both lean and obese rodent and human subjects.
Artificial sweeteners could also be affecting us psychologically. Recent studies revealed that subjects who knew they were ingesting aspartame showed increased overall energy intake, whereas subjects who did not know had a 25% reduction in energy intake, likely due to the reduced calories in the artificial sweetener.
Artificial sweeteners likely do not activate neurochemical food reward pathways in the same way that natural sweeteners do, suggesting that there's a mechanism of trickery occurring on a physiological level, reducing our sensitivity to the normal reward responses seen with sugar and other foods.
It's important to keep in mind however, that both translational and epidemiological research findings in humans are complicated by the fact that people consuming artificial sweeteners are often already at risk or suffering from metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes, or related conditions, and correlational evidence is just that, correlational- not necessarily causal. Rodent models, however do provide findings that are independent of subjective biases that could skew findings in human studies.
Despite mixed findings, evidence does support the elimination, or at least reduction of certain artificial sweetener in our diets. Some healthcare providers recommend including small amounts of real sugar in combination with alternatives that are not artificially synthesized, such as Stevia. Despite its recent ascent in American markets, Stevia has been available in Japan and other nations for decades. Stevia is made from a South American plant called Stevia rebaudiana and has been generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, with no studies showing it has any harmful health effects.
Consumers should seek alternatives to artificial sweeteners and only consume artificial sweeteners in moderation. Both artificial and natural options have health benefits and drawbacks, but ultimately (at least for now, while the FDA still approves all 6 artificial sweetener products) the choice is there for the consumer to make, good luck.