Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Safe and Should You Use Them?

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There’s no sugarcoating it. Artificial sweeteners don’t help you lose weight, and may actually lead to weight gain, diabetes and other health problems, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Andrea McCarty, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Mon Health Medical Center, often has patients ask her about artificial sweeteners.

So we sat down with her to get the 411 on this popular sugar substitute.

Q: What are artificial sweeteners?

McCarty: Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes — basically anything you use instead of normal sugar. On food packaging, products with artificial sweeteners will say “sugar free,” “diet” or “zero calorie.”

They’re synthetic, meaning man-made, but some may be made from natural ingredients like herbs or even sugar itself.

Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than regular sugar — just a small packet of an artificial sweetener can make your coffee or tea as sweet as if you’d added several teaspoons of real sugar.

Q: Why do people use artificial sweeteners?

Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Safe and Should You Be Using Them?McCarty: Simply put, people use artificial sweeteners because they don’t have calories. Let’s use Coca-Cola as an example.

A regular can of Coke has 140 calories — all of them from sugar. A 12-ounce can has 39 grams of sugar, or approximately 9 teaspoons. To put this in perspective, the daily added sugar limit for women is 6 teaspoons and 9 teaspoons for men. Added sugar does not include naturally occurring sugars, such as the sugar in milk or fruit.

Since artificial sweeteners don’t have any calories, many people see it as a way to enjoy their favorite sodas without consequence.

Q: Are artificial sweeteners healthier than sugar?

McCarty: There isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question. In some cases, evidence does suggest that artificial sweeteners may help people lose weight — but only when they are carefully used as a direct replacement for sugar-sweetened food or drink.

But this isn’t how most people consume artificial sweeteners. Many people overconsume them, using them as an excuse to fill up on products that lack key nutrients needed by the body.

While artificial sweeteners are a good way to reduce overall calorie intake, we don’t advise using them as a weight-loss strategy.

 A: Do artificial sweeteners have side effects?

McCarty: There has been research that suggests using artificial sweeteners may lead to an increased sweet tooth. Some say that they may confuse the body and alter the way it handles real sugar — this has actually been shown in lab animals.

Observational studies found a small increase in BMI associated with the use of artificial sweeteners. The same studies also found that those who consumed a high amount of artificial sweeteners had a 14% higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

Q: Which sweeteners are best?

McCarty: This is a matter of personal preference. It depends on which sweeteners you prefer and how you’re going to use them.

Some sweeteners don’t work well in baking, because they don’t hold up to high heat. For baking, sucralose works well. For sweeteners in beverages, it’s a matter of personal preference.

However, some people need to be cautious about consuming aspartame. Aspartame contains phenylalanine, an amino acid that cannot be metabolized by people with PKU (phenylketonuria). PKU is rare, but those who have it must avoid aspartame at all costs.

Q: Should I limit my intake?

McCarty: Ultimately, yes. Artificial sweeteners aren’t a ticket to drink as much diet soda as you want or consume pounds of sugar-free candy. We recommend using them sparingly and being aware of your overall intake.

You should also pay attention to the other ingredients in the zero-calorie products you’re consuming. For example, if you’re drinking Diet Coke, be aware of the caffeine content — too much caffeine can have adverse effects.

Try switching to infused water for a healthier, more flavorful, calorie-free drink. Studies have shown that drinking water naturally boosts your metabolism, and drinking infused water for weight loss can be an easy way to increase your water intake.

Check out Mon Health’s Pinterest board for some refreshing infused water recipes.