Imagine a world where the only thing that mattered about food was the calories. The overall quality, nutrients, and additives were irrelevant – and you could be healthy and lean eating whatever you want as long your calories were below a special shot-in-the-dark number you got from some calculator on the internet.
Sound familiar? This man-made “reality” is the picture the processed food industry has been painting for years, and most of us believe it. In fact, according to the Calorie Counting Council, over half of Americans use “low-calorie” and “sugar-free” food products regularly, and 74% of people with extra weight utilize these artificially sweetened foods and beverages in hopes of loosing the pounds.
While great at promoting alluring buzzwords, labels fail to reveal that each calorie contained within the packaging affects our body’s health and longevity in vastly different ways. In fact, the type of ingredients we choose to ingest, whether “calorie-free” or not, can have an impact on our brain’s functioning – including the signaling that makes us feel hungry or full, and the processing that determines how we store and burn what we eat.
If that sounds like kind of a big deal – you’re right. With over $3.2 billion in sales worldwide, perhaps the most prevalent example of this real foods reality is artificially created sweeteners.
Artificial Sweeteners: The Profitable Accident
And so the story goes, the first artificial sweetener, saccharin (now branded as “Sweet’N Low”), made its accidental debut in 1879 when a researcher from Johns Hopkins University forgot to wash his hands after working on coal tar derivatives and tasted sweetness on his fingers. Is this true? I wasn’t there – so I don’t know. But, saccharin quickly became appealing to the food industry because it was way more profitability than sugar, and its production in chemical labs made it more reliable in comparison to the harvesting of natural sugar cane in the Caribbean.
During WWII, artificial sweeteners gained significant popularity when sugar began being rationed. Once sugar’s availability returned to normal post-war, brands began mass marketing sugar substitutes with glamorous images of women eating pleasurable foods while still maintaining weight and thinness. It was the ultimate “have your cake, and eat it to” campaign to women – and it worked.
Today, the same branding strategy for artificial sweeteners still exists, with the occasional claim of being “natural” and “sweeter for your health” inserted for increased appeal.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
While there are many different types of sugar substitutes, including sugar alcohols and “novel” sweeteners, the most popular replacement for sugar is the chemical concoctions classified as artificial sweeteners. Currently, the FDA has approved six artificial sweeteners: saccharin (Sweet’N Low), acesulfame potassium (Sunett), aspartame (Equal), neotame, sucralose (Splenda), and the newest kid on the block, advantame. Advantame was approved last month and is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar, making it the sweetest of the bunch by a long-shot.
The most commonly used artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, all range between 200 – 600 times sweeter than sugar. These sweeteners are so potent because much like a teenage love – they snuggle up tighter to “sweet” receptors and trigger a more powerful response in comparison to natural sugar.
Click the image above or here to automatically download a printable .pdf guide of the List of Artificial Sweeteners!
Artificial Sweeteners: A Big Fat Sabotage?
So, where do all the calories run off to? Artificial sweeteners are made through chemical reactions where synthetic molecules are either combined or added to existing molecules. The body doesn’t recognize these new combinations – so artificial sweeteners “pass through” the body or aren’t metabolized appropriately into energy.
While that may seem marvelous to the unknowing mind (and yes, I too have fanaticized about eating a whole cake and it “passing through” unabsorbed), studies have shown that when we consume something super sweet, yet provide the body with no calories – psychological changes can occur that dissociates sweet tasting food with energy intake. As if refined sugar didn’t already come with complications, this means our brain’s ability to associate “sweet” with an intake of calories is weakened, leading to an increase in appetite, overeating, and suppressing overall satiation.
I think this also has a lot to do with the fact that people who consume “calorie-free” treats or diet sodas psychologically associate it with deprivation or “good” health behaviors, therefore, they want the sweet indulgences even more so – or end up negating these so called “good” behaviors with not so good ones.
So, while you may think you’re “cutting calories” by using the fake stuff, it can actually make you feel more hungry and less satiated in the long run. (All aboard for a ride on the “drive yourself crazy” train!) In fact, in addition to psychological impacts, artificial sweeteners have been associated with an increase in overall calorie intake in subsequent meals, negating the initial reason most people consume them in first place.
And while more research is needed, observational studies have shown that those who consume diets sodas daily are twice as more likely to become overweight, and have an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes.
To add to the craziness, the fake “intensity” of artificial sweeteners can degrade our palates from appreciating more complex flavors, leaving real foods like vegetables and fruits unappealing. As a result, the overall quality and diversity of the diet can take a hit.10
So, if you’d like to experience more hunger, weight gain, dissatisfaction with healthy foods, and consume more calories throughout the day – artificial sweeteners are perfect for you! (For some reason, they don’t put that on the label.)
Artificially Induced Dependency
We’ve all heard about sugar’s capability to elicit responses in our brain’s “pleasure center” that affects motivation, pleasure and dependency. While artificial sweeteners have a much different makeup, studies show that repeated exposure to the taste of sugar increases sugar cravings and can cause sugar dependency. Since artificial sweeteners provide a more concentrated sweet flavor, this means consumption may stimulate an increased dependency on sugary foods.11
In fact, a recent animal study looked at the response to saccharin (Sweet N’ Low) in comparison to cocaine. Given the choice between the two solutions, 94% percent of the animals choose saccharin, even when exposed to cocaine intoxication and intake escalation (the hallmark of drug addiction.)12
But, the satisfaction may only be short-lived. Increasing evidence suggests artificial sweeteners do not activate food reward pathways in the brain responsible for making us feel satisfied.13 This lack of satisfaction results in further “food seeking” behavior, which generally includes overeating or eating other foods in hopes of finding the missing satisfaction. (Speaking from experience, it’s usually found in the sugar-filled cup cake you were trying to avoid in the first place.)
Artificially Induced Depression
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that’s important in the regulation of our emotions, mood, sleep and hunger signaling. Aspartame, the most widely used artificial sweetener, is comprised of 50% phenylalanine, an amino acid that’s been shown to decrease levels of serotonin.14 If we deplete our serotonin levels, we’re more likely to eat more because serotonin is responsible for inhibiting food intake. It also means we’re at a greater risk for experiencing mood related disorders like anxiety and depression, and may provide insight on research that has linked diet soda consumption with higher rates of depression.17
And for the icing on the artificially sweetened cake, research has found that artificial sweeteners, particularly sucralose (Splenda), can significantly reduce the amount beneficial “good” bacteria in the gut.18 Give that 70-80% of our immune system, and up to 90% of our serotonin resides in our gut, disruption to our gut flora can have a huge impact on our overall health, satiation, metabolism, and nutrient absorption – to name a few.
Farewell to the Fakeness
While more quality evidence is needed for scientific conclusions to be made, I think it’s safe to recommend reducing – or removing artificial sweeteners from your diet if you’re interested in achieving weight loss, or improving overall health. If it doesn’t occur in nature, it’s most likely not human food and can’t be trusted to process properly within the body.
And believe me, I’ll be the first to say we all need a sweet treat in our lives every now and then. If you’re looking for information on making good sweetener choices, I recommend using my printable .pdf List of All Things Sugar to know what to avoid, and what to use.
As a word of caution – always be on alert with “novel” sugar alternatives that claim to be from “natural” extracts, especially those that are derived from Stevia. Truvia, PureVia, and other “natural” stevia products that claim to be “in the raw” are very much so processed, and can contain additives like erythritol, dextrose, and natural flavors.
What kind of sweeteners or sugar alternatives do you choose to use? Let me know below!
Keepin’ it human,