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Are artificial sweeteners better for your health than sugar?

Updated 26 March, 2018

Artificial sweeteners have been subject of heated debate in the health community for many years.

Most health authorities consider them to be safe and many people use them as a way to eat less sugar and lose weight. However, artificial sweeteners have always been dogged by claims that they’re bad for your blood pressure, gut health and even that they can increase your risk of cancer.

Food and drinks companies have had their say, too. In January 2018, the head of Britvic UK, Paul Graham, announced that soft drinks companies couldn’t remove any more sugar from their drinks without compromising on taste and potentially losing customers.

So what’s the answer? We’ve looked in detail at the effect of artificial sweeteners on your body and assessed whether they’re a better alternative to sugar.

The sugar content in a can of soft drink

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are chemicals used to sweeten foods and beverages. Unlike sugar, they contain virtually no calories.

You’ll find them in many sweet products, including soft drinks, puddings, cakes, biscuits, ready meals and even chewing gum. Each one is rigorously tested by the European Food Safety Authority before it’s allowed to be used in consumer products.

What do artificial sweeteners do to your body?

Aside from the obvious fact that they taste sweet, there are lots of questions to be asked about what artificial sweeteners do to your body.

As a consumer, it’s important to know exactly what you’re putting into your system. We’ve looked at some of the most frequently answered questions about artificial sweeteners.

Do artificial sweeteners cause weight gain?

On the contrary, randomised control studies (the gold standard of scientific research) have found that artificial sweeteners may actually reduce weight, body fat and waist circumference.

These studies also show that replacing regular soft drinks with sugar-free versions can decrease body mass index (BMI) by up to 1.7 points.

Compared with sugar, artificial sweeteners provide virtually zero calories, because most cannot be broken down by your body. Various studies ranging from 4 weeks to 40 months show that swapping sugar for an artificial sweetener may lead to weight loss of up to 1.3 kg.

Of course, artificial sweeteners aren’t magic. If the rest of your diet is still poor, or you don’t get any exercise, you are highly unlikely to lose weight. This might explain why some flawed observational studies have claimed that artificial sweeteners can contribute to weight gain.

If weight loss is what you’re aiming for, artificial sweeteners should form part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

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Do artificial sweeteners cause diabetes?

One of the biggest advantages of many artificial sweeteners is that they provide a sweet taste similar to sugar, but don’t cause a spike in your blood sugar.

This makes them a useful option for anyone looking to cut back on their sugar intake, or for diabetics who wouldn’t normally be able to enjoy certain sweet foods.

Many artificial sweeteners aren’t fully broken down by the body. They simply pass through your system relatively unchanged and are removed from your body when you go to the toilet.

However, some artificial sweeteners seem to have different effects based on a person's age or genetic background. More research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects for different people.

Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?

A debate has raged since the 1970s about whether there is a link between artificial sweeteners and cancer risk. Aspartame, in particular, has come under heavy scrutiny and was the subject of a now-discredited 1996 study that claimed it increased the chance of brain tumours developing.

The debate was reignited when studies in 2006 and 2007 found an increased risk of certain cancers in rats who were given aspartame. However, the metabolism of rats and humans is vastly different, and no test on humans has yielded this result.

In fact, a follow-up study of around half a million people found no link between aspartame and cancer. More than 30 studies of artificial sweeteners’ effect on humans support the view that they don’t cause or increase your risk of cancer.

The stringent health tests each sweetener undergoes before it’s deemed suitable for use includes an assessment that rules it out as a potential carcinogen.

Which artificial sweetener is best?

There isn’t really a definitive answer to this question yet, because there hasn’t been a study that has properly investigated it. Apart from anything else, researchers would have to agree on what is meant by ‘best’!

What we can say is that many different types of artificial sweeteners exist, but not all are approved for use everywhere in the world. There are many different kinds of EU-approved artificial sweeteners that are safe to consume, including aspartame, saccharin, sorbitol, sucralose, stevia and xylitol.

Look for these on the list of ingredients if you want to be sure what you’re consuming.

So, are artificial sweeteners better than sugar?

Overall, the use of artificial sweeteners poses few risks and may even have benefits for weight loss and blood sugar levels. These sweeteners are especially beneficial if you use them to decrease the amount of added sugar in your diet.

That said, some people may feel ill or experience negative effects after consuming artificial sweeteners, even if they are safe for most people. If this happens, speak to a doctor, as it may be that you need to seek out an alternative artificial sweetener.

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Topics: Diet & Nutrition