Artificial Sweeteners: Bitter Controversy

Categories: Nutrition

Artificial sweeteners and other high-intensity sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose (Splenda), are one of the most controversial topics in the fitness industry. They have been linked to neurotoxicity, cancer, disruption of satiety mechanisms and many more bad bad things. But is their reputation as satanic sugar deserved?

I could write a really long article about the industry hoaxes, the methodological flaws in many of the studies and the media's role in their vilification, but I'll keep this as brief as possible, because it's a boring, unambiguous topic. I generally divide high-intensity sweeteners into 2 functional categories, so I'll deal with each individually.


Stevia, Acesulfame-K, Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin And Sucralose (Splenda)

Simply put, if you disregard all the epidemiological and animal studies (a good idea when human studies are available), the evidence for the safety of these artificial sweeteners is overwhelming. Many, many human studies unequivocally show they are completely safe to consume in whatever dosage you like. They do not raise blood sugar or insulin, are completely non-toxic and cause no gastric distress or any other adverse side effects.

There are only 3 potential reasons not to consume them.

  1. They comprise only a few percent of most actual sweetener products, with the rest of the product being bulking material such as maltodextrin. As such, most sweeteners do contain empty, sugary calories. Not many, but if you use as much of the stuff as I do, enough to matter.
  2. They make you hungry, if – and only if – consumed in the absence of other nutrients, such as in the form of diet sodas in between meals. I actually sometimes use diet sodas as appetite stimulants during bulks.
  3. They make you prefer sweeter foods. All sweet foods have this property though. People just prefer foods they habitually consume.

Conclusion: Commonplace artificial sweeteners are perfectly safe to consume. Just be aware that most sweeteners are not completely devoid of calories and increase your hunger when consumed in the absence of other nutrients.


Sugar Alcohols and Tagatose

They are also generally safe to consume, though they can cause gastric distress, like nausea, laxation, borborygmus (grumbling stomach), gas or bloating. Some have calories, while others don't and different countries have different laws regarding their labelling. Erythritol seems to be the safest of the bunch, contains virtually no calories and has a texture very much like actual sugar. It doesn't cause gas or bloating and many people tolerate it well in low doses. It does have a strong endothermic (cooling) effect though when it is first dissolved in a fluid, so if you put it on a pancake it will taste cold.

I hope (but doubt) this will help end the… unsubstantiated discussions about artificial sweeteners.



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Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies. B. A. Magnuson, G. A. Burdock, J. Doull, R. M. Kroes, G. M. Marsh, M. W. Pariza, P. S. Spencer, W. J. Waddell, R. Walker, G. M. Williams. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2007; 37(8): 629–727.

Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, Coulon S, Cefalu WT, Geiselman P, Williamson DA. Appetite. 2010 Aug;55(1):37-43.

Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data. Munro IC, Berndt WO, Borzelleca JF, Flamm G, Lynch BS, Kennepohl E, Bär EA, Modderman J. Food Chem Toxicol. 1998 Dec;36(12):1139-74.

Gain weight by "going diet?" Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. Yang Q. Yale J Biol Med. 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8.

Gastrointestinal tolerance of erythritol and xylitol ingested in a liquid. Storey D, Lee A, Bornet F, Brouns F. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;61(3):349-54.

Nonnutritive sweetener consumption in humans: effects on appetite and food intake and their putative mechanisms. Mattes RD, Popkin BM.Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):1-14.

Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits. Tandel KR. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2011 Oct;2(4):236-43.

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About the author

Menno Henselmans

Formerly a business consultant, I've traded my company car to follow my passion in strength training. I'm now an online physique coach, scientist and international public speaker with the mission to help serious trainees master their physique.

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