Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-free But Are They Really Safe?

Sugar alternatives are everywhere - but are they healthy? Do they help you lose weight?

4 min read

We all cut out the sugary pop on a diet. But what about the sugar-free alternatives? Are they safe? Every time I drink something with aspartame in it, I worry myself sick - ‘am I drinking cancer? Is it making me gain weight?’

Well, artificial sweeteners have been the hotbed of medical debate since decades but scientists are still scratching their heads on this one, but here’s a quick round-up of things you should know about artificial sugars:

Types Of Artificial Sugars

There are mostly three types of artificial sweeteners in the market: saccharin, aspartame and stevia.


Sugar alternatives are everywhere - but are they healthy? Do they help you lose weight?
Saccharin has lost a lot of its popularity because of the cancer controversy. It also leaves a bitter aftertaste, so is generally replaced by aspartame and other newer and better-tasting artificial sweeteners (Photo: The Quint).

It is over 300 times sweeter than normal sugar!

In the 70s, studies linked saccharin to bladder cancer in rats. Back then in US, the Food and Drug Administration tried to take it out of the shelves but the diet industry would not have any of that. Fast forward to the 90s and scientists found that the bladder cancer result was only in rats and not in humans.

However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a very credible, non-profit watchdog group in the US, still has saccharin in their “food items to avoid list”.


This is the biggie. Aspartame is found in a host of supermarket products these days from gums, to low sugar ice-creams, sodas, low-calorie cereals and processed foods.

Sugar alternatives are everywhere - but are they healthy? Do they help you lose weight?
(Photo: The Quint)

Aspartame has been researched a lot in the past decades, the cancer concerns stem from Italian studies where scientists fed high amounts of aspartame to rats. The rats who had a very low chance of getting cancer developed kidney tumours, breast and blood cancers.

However, the US FDA rejected the study on rather vague grounds that they “lack enough data” and allowed the indiscriminate use of aspartame.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) gives aspartame its lowest food rankings and does not consider it safe for human consumption.

Another high profile study done by the National Cancer Institute on more than half a million adults found no significant increase in cancer risk in people who consumed regular amount of aspartame than those who did not.

However, the study was flawed: it did not include the elderly nor those who consume aspartame since childhood. Another major drawback was that the volunteers had to self-report aspartame consumption. Now many people do not realise what’s in their food so a lot of under-reporting could have happened.

So net-net, it is possible that aspartame is associated with serious health risks, pregnant women are told to avoid it for a reason, but so far the case against it doesn’t rest on any concrete medical evidence.


Sugar alternatives are everywhere - but are they healthy? Do they help you lose weight?
(Photo: The Quint)

Stevia is the most expensive artificial sugar alternate, this high-potency sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Scientists have only now started studying it and in the few studies that have been done, it is considered the most safer low-calorie sweetener. In the market, it is available as Truvia, Pure Via, Stevia among other brands.

Even the CSPI is positive about it, labeling it as “currently safe, but should be better tested for long-term effects”.

Your Brain On Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar alternatives are everywhere - but are they healthy? Do they help you lose weight?
(Photo: iStock altered by The Quint)

Artificial sweeteners contain no nutrition but still activate taste sensors. Therefore, they trick the body into expecting nutrition but don’t deliver, leaving you hungry for more. In other words, sweeteners can actually increase the cravings for sugar without satisfying it.

Do Artificial Sweeteners Help You Lose Weight?

Sugar alternatives are everywhere - but are they healthy? Do they help you lose weight?
(Photo: iStock)

Maybe not.

A strong body of research suggests that artificial sweeteners will not help you in losing weight. A study published in medical journal Obesity found that people who drank a can of diet soda everyday containing aspartame had double the risk of becoming overweight than those who didn’t.

Another study done at University of Yale found that people who consume artificial sweetened foods (not necessarily sodas) have triple the risk of metabolic syndrome - that’s the group of symptoms related to heart diseases and diabetes.

Scientists have established a link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain over time but aren’t too sure of the mechanics of why it happens.

So there is no need to throw everything with “aspartame” down the sink yet- consider sugar and artificial sweeteners as a recreational drug. It’s something you would enjoy from time to time, like a glass of wine. You don’t have wine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, do you? If you want to remain healthy, a little bit of stevia once in a while in moderation is fine.

Related Read: It’s Possible to Reverse Your Sweet Tooth!

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