I'm a psychotherapist and wellness coach, and founder of The Calm & Happy Gut Solution. I specialise in gut directed hypnotherapy and CBT for IBS, helping my clients to beat their symptoms without restrictive diets or being medicated the rest of their lives.
Okay, so you’ve made the decision to give up or cut back on sugar. Hurrah!
But now what?
If like many people you’re feeling a bit daunted by your decision, then you may be looking for ideas of how to lessen the cravings and withdrawals. And this is often what leads many people to consider artificial sweeteners either on their own or to buy the products they are in.
After all, they’re sugar free right?
But hang on just a moment.
Before you start filling your supermarket trolley full of ‘sugar free’ alternatives, let me give you a step by step look at what you are really putting into your trolley, and potentially putting into your body. From there you can come to your own decision about what’s in, and what’s out.
I’ll be covering the top 6 artificial sweeteners and running through what they’re in, why they are used and what you need to know before eating (or drinking them).
I’ll also be sharing the verdict given by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) as to whether you should be avoiding, cutting back, or they are safe to eat. The CSPI, founded in 1971, is perhaps the oldest independent, science-based consumer advocacy organisation with its aim to improve the food system to support healthy eating. They have a tonne of great information on their website so I’d recommend heading over and checking it out.
So without further ado, let’s kick this guide off with one of the most well-known and hotly debated artificial sweeteners, and that is Aspartame.
Additive Number: E951
Alternative Names: Equal, Nutrasweet, Canderel
Why is it used: It’s 200 times sweeter than sucrose aka normal white sugar
What’s it in: Diet drinks, yoghurt, energy drinks, sugar free mints and chewing gum, sweetener tablets and sachets
What you need to know: Approved for use in the 1980s, it is considered to be safe by food authorities and other mainstream media sources.
However, it is one of the most researched artificial sweeteners around and has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer, headaches, multiple sclerosis and weight gain.
While it is indeed an approved sweetener for food, it’s worth noting that numerous studies conducted suggest problems with the sweetener, including a study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
CSPI Verdict: AVOID
Additive Number: E950
Alternative Names: Sunett, Sweet One
Why is it used: It’s 200 times sweeter than sucrose
What’s it in: Diet drinks, yoghurt, energy drinks, baked goods, sugar free mints and chewing gum
What you need to know: First approved by the FDA in the US back in 1988, it’s usually found in a blend with other sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose.
As with all artificial sweeteners it’s surrounded by controversary and despite it being deemed as safe, some have claimed that it can disrupt metabolic processes and interfere with appetite regulation, body weight and blood sugar control.
Additionally, some critics of acesulfame are concerned with its effect on the early development of babies during pregnancy.
CSPI Verdict: AVOID
Additive number: E954
Alternative Names: Sweet’N Low
Why is it used: It is about 300–400 times as sweet as sucrose but has a bitter or metallic aftertaste, especially at high concentrations.
What’s it in: sweetener tablets and sachets, drinks, cookies, candy and medicines
What you need to know: In the early 1970s studies on rats found a link between saccharin and bladder cancer. This finding prompted all foods containing the artificial sweetener to carry a warning label.
However, a lack of evidence of causing cancer in humans saw this label mandate revoked.
At the time of writing, this artificial sweetener is now regarded as safe by the food industry.
However, I would still exercise caution due to the potential side effects linked to the class of compounds (called sulphonamides) it belongs to. This especially applies to infants, children and pregnant women.
CSPI Verdict: AVOID
Additive Number: E955
Alternative Names: Splenda
Why is it used: It is about 320 to 1,000 times sweeter than sucrose, three times as sweet as both aspartame and acesulfame potassium, and twice as sweet as sodium saccharin
What’s it in: energy drinks, iced tea, cordial, yoghurt, ginger beer, fruit drinks and canned fruit
What you need to know: Approved in 1988 by the FDA in the US, it is widely used around the world. Sucralose has seen many studies conducted, mostly focusing on the link between consuming this sweetener and cancer.
Whilst many studies showed no correlation, an Italian study in 2016 did. In addition to the question over it being potentially carcinogenic, several researchers have highlighted that sucralose may negatively impact the gut, including changes in the microbiome and enzymes.
Like many of these sweeteners, there is still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the impact on the human body. However, if you are experiencing IBD or other GI issues, you may just get some relief by avoiding this sweetener.
CSPI Verdict: AVOID
Additive Number: E952
Alternative Names: Sucaryl
Why is it used: It is 30-50 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar) making it the least potent of the commercially used artificial sweeteners.
What’s it in: cordial, jelly, ginger beer
What you need to know: Currently banned in the US due to its links with cancer in animals, it’s still used here in Australia as well as in 50 other countries. This is another tricky artificial sweetener as there are studies giving it the all clear, together with studies showing significant health issues including concerns over its effect on male fertility.
What is also interesting to note (and the problem with it) is that although most people don’t metabolise it (meaning their bodies don’t break it down and absorb it), some people do.
This means that despite acceptance levels being set in countries where it is legal, depending on whether or not your body breaks it down, you may be unknowingly be consuming unsafe levels. For example, drinking 1.5 litres of soda sweetened with cyclamate can cause people to reach the acceptable intake set by the European Union.
Anything over is going to cause concern.
What is clear is like many artificial sweeteners there is no clear answer either way, and if in doubt it’s best to avoid.
CSPI Verdict: AVOID
Additive Number: E961
Alternative Names: Newtame
Why is it used: It is between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar depending on what it is added to
What’s it in: Drinks, dairy products, frozen desserts, puddings and fruit juices
What you need to know: It’s the newest on the market having been approved by the US FDA in 2002. What this means is that it’s still too early to say whether or not there are any serious side effects.
Artificial sweeteners have long been suspected carcinogens, but after 100 studies the National Cancer Institute found no definitive link between Neotame and an increased risk of cancer.
However, before you go rushing to the store for this one, just be aware that it’s chemically similar to aspartame (it’s manufactured by the same company) which many would say is the most dangerous artificial sweetener out there. It’s also the newest on the block which means we don’t know the impact on the human body long term.
CSPI Verdict: Safe
There is still so much we don’t know about many of these artificial sweeteners, and the big question is what they do to the human body over the long term. Whilst some may argue that using artificial sweeteners may help you curb your sweet tooth in the short term, the dangers in my opinion far outweigh any benefits.
In addition to the examples above, some studies indicate that the super-sweetness of artificial sweeteners may interfere with the release of your satiety hormones (these are the hormones telling you when you’re full and you’ve had enough to eat), which can lead to you overeating without even realising it!
There is also the research showing the harmful effects of artificial sweeteners on your gut health – killing off the good bacteria. Your gut microbiome plays a critical role in your overall health, and personally I wouldn’t want to be messing around with it if I had a choice.
Added to all of this of course is the very real risk of actually getting addicted to artificial sweeteners, with many reporting that their withdrawal symptoms were much worse than quitting natural sugar.
So treat with caution.
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