Since artificial sweeteners first rose to prominence in the 1960s, they’ve been touted far and wide as a much healthier alternative to sugar. Substitutes such as aspartame and sorbitol have been marketed as a virtual godsend for dieters, too – not least because they contain very little in the way of calories. But are artificial sweeteners all that they’re cracked up to be? Well, the results of a 16-year study into these additives make for some pretty alarming reading – particularly when it comes to our well-being. And when you read exactly what the research has found, you may want to leave that diet soda on the shelf for good.
Initially, though, these synthetic counterparts to sugar were considered to be an all-round better choice than the white stuff – especially when it came to their caloric content. For example, while a sugar-laden 12-ounce can of regular Coke boasts a whopping 140 calories, the same amount of Diet Coke contains no calories at all.
Then, in Europe, a decade-and-a-half-long study was conducted into the relationship between artificial sweeteners and mortality. Participants came from across the continent, with more than 450,000 people taking part in the research. And when the outcomes of this lengthy endeavor were released in September 2019, the results were eye-opening.
In fact, the findings from that project may be bad news for anyone who likes to sip on some ice-cold Fresca or chew on a piece of Orbit gum. So, could sugar really be the better option? And why did so many people switch to these chemical replacements to begin with, anyway?
Well, it’s known that consuming too much sugar can not only play havoc with your dental health, but it may also lead to weight gain. And if you’re carrying a few extra pounds as a result of that sweet tooth, then you may be running a greater risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Given those possibilities, then, opting for artificial sweeteners over sugar may seem like a no-brainer.
But while sugar may have been painted in a negative light, we do actually need some of the sweet stuff to survive and thrive. There’s no need to cut out sugar in its entirety from our diets, either. The American Heart Association claims, for example, that six teaspoons or less of sugar for women and nine teaspoons or less for men are acceptable daily amounts for us to consume.
That said, it’s not always easy to tell how much sugar you’re eating on a day-to-day basis. And some sugars are better for us than others, too. Carbohydrate-heavy fruits and vegetables, for example, are an all-round good choice when it comes to providing the natural energy that the body needs to keep functioning properly.
Perhaps the biggest issue, then, is with “added sugars” – ones that have been added to processed food to boost their flavor. And you may be shocked at how prevalent such sweetened goods are in your grocery cart. A 2015 study by researchers Barry M. Popkin and Corinna Hawkes found that added sugars were present in an incredible 68 percent of the packaged food and drink that had been purchased by the U.S. households they surveyed.
More worryingly, extra sugar is often put into items such as crackers, jerky and flavored water that may not seem all that sweet to our tastebuds. Even some varieties of vitamins contain the stuff – despite that seeming a little counterproductive. And you may be stunned to hear just how much sugar that all adds up to.
You see, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. citizens each consume the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of added sugar on average per day. That’s an awful lot, and it may all come with consequences. It’s been said, for example, that individuals who eat too much sugar not only run the risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes, but also heart disease and – in some cases – cancer.
Yet that’s not all, as apparently sugar can also have real effects on your mental health. The dips and peaks that occur when your blood sugar levels are erratic may lead, for instance, to feelings of tiredness, headaches and fluctuations in mood. And a sudden plummet in blood sugar could even make you feel more anxious than normal.
In 2019 medical professional Candace Burch explained this phenomenon further to Well+Good, saying, “The rush of sugar leads to sugar highs [that give] a lot of energy, but then the lows lead to feeling sluggish and down.” Nutritionist Brigitte Zeitlin added to the website that the “quick spike and drop” of blood sugar typically experienced after consuming a very sweet snack “can even at times mimic a panic attack.”
It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that many have turned to artificial sweeteners to satisfy a sweet tooth. These concoctions can be cost-effective, too, as only a tiny amount is needed to provide a very similar taste to sugar. And then, of course, there are the benefits to dieters, as artificial sweeteners contain very few calories.
Unlike sugar, though, artificial sweeteners don’t usually come from a naturally grown product. Instead, they’re typically created in laboratories using a great deal of technical know-how. Sometimes, chemical synthesis – which involves man-made reactions – is deployed to create these substitutes; on other occasions, they’re extracted from the alcohols of sugar itself.
And partly because artificial sweeteners often don’t exist without human intervention, there have been concerns about their safety. You may assume, too, that these substances aren’t all that healthy despite their lack of caloric content. After all, it’s often touted that natural foods are a lot better for us than processed ones.
Nevertheless, sugar substitutes such as aspartame and sucralose have been given the seal of approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The U.S. government agency is tasked with ensuring that all foodstuffs and dietary supplements that go on the market are suitable for human consumption, meaning any new additives – such as artificial sweeteners – are therefore subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny.
Owing to the FDA’s stringent regulations, then, artificial sweeteners may seem to have been properly vetted as safe to eat. It’s interesting to note, though, that as far back as the 1800s, there was already some doubt surrounding the potential toxicity of arguably the original sugar substitute: saccharin.
Saccharin was initially discovered in 1879 by the Russian Constantin Fahlberg, who at the time was engaged in research at Johns Hopkins University. And while Fahlberg was meant to have been analyzing coal tar, his clumsiness inadvertently unearthed what is now one of the most widespread artificial sweeteners readily available today.
After a long day working at the lab in Baltimore, Maryland, the chemist had been ready for dinner. Upon biting into his bread roll, though, Fahlberg found that the foodstuff was much sweeter than he had been anticipating. And he concluded that this unusual taste wasn’t by design, either.
An 1886 edition of Scientific American went into further detail about Fahlberg’s discovery, with the Russian himself speaking about the circumstances that had first led him to isolate saccharin. He explained, “I sat down, broke a piece of bread and put it to my lips. It tasted unspeakably sweet. I did not ask why it was so – probably because I thought it was some cake or sweetmeat.”
Fahlberg added, “I rinsed my mouth with water and dried my mustache with my napkin, when, to my surprise, the napkin tasted sweeter than the bread. Then I was puzzled. I again raised my goblet and, as fortune would have it, applied my mouth where my fingers had touched it before. The water seemed syrup.”
Then Fahlberg had a revelation. “It flashed on me that I was the cause of the singular universal sweetness,” he related. “And I accordingly tasted the end of my thumb and found [that] it surpassed any confectionery I had ever eaten.” The chemist also deduced that, as he had inadvertently spilled a chemical during his research that day, this substance must have made its way onto his own hands – and then the bread.
Fahlberg couldn’t recall which material had been involved in his mishap, however, and this led him to conduct a – potentially rather dangerous – experiment of his own. In the Scientific American article, he wrote, “I dropped my dinner and ran back to the laboratory. There, in my excitement, I tasted the contents of every beaker and evaporating dish on the table.”
Given the often-toxic items that the scientist handled as part of his job, this decision may have seemed a little reckless. Nonetheless, the process yielded results. In time, Fahlberg narrowed the cause of the sweetness down to one thing: what he called “an impure solution of saccharin.”
Then, once the Russian had further investigated the substance and published the details of his findings, he set to work on producing saccharin commercially. And more than 140 years on from that momentous – if somewhat accidental – invention, the artificial sweetener can now be found in everything from cookies to iced tea.
A further five FDA-approved sugar substitutes have since been introduced, too. And perhaps as a result of health concerns, artificial sweeteners remain a popular alternative to their more natural counterpart. According to a study published in 2017 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, more than 40 percent of American adults surveyed claimed to have consumed so-called “low-calorie sweeteners.” An eye-opening 56 percent of that number revealed, moreover, that they ingested such substances daily.
If you’re among the many people who stir Splenda into your coffee on the regular, though, you may want to cut down – or even avoid the habit altogether. You see, even though sucralose – of which Splenda is constituted – has been approved for general sale, its overall impact on the body has been the subject of much debate. It’s been said, for instance, that the artificial sweetener may have detrimental effects on our gut health as well as our blood sugar levels.
In 2016, meanwhile, the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health published the results of a study investigating how consumption of sucralose affected mice. More specifically, the researchers looked to see whether the substance would bring on any form of cancer in the rodents – and what was ultimately discovered was shocking.
Alarmingly, the male mice used in the study appeared to be more frequently developing cancerous tumors after having ingested sucralose. This was even the case when the animals were given relatively low doses of the sweetener. As a consequence, then, the scientists who carried out the research at Italy’s Ramazzini Institute implored others to follow their lead to determine whether sucralose is truly safe for human consumption.
But while the effects of sucralose may not be the same in people as it is in mice, we do have some evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners aren’t all that good for us. Most notably, when the findings of that 16-year European research was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, they seemed to lend weight to the theory that sugar substitutes are harmful to our overall wellbeing.
By analyzing the participants’ lifestyles and beverage intake, the specialists who led the experiment were able to gain an in-depth understanding of the impact that the subjects’ choice of drinks had had on them. The scientists discovered, for example, that 41,693 of the individuals surveyed had died during the research project.
It was found, too, that those subjects who consumed soft drinks daily were more likely to have passed away than others who more frequently refrained. And, rather disturbingly, the research suggested that even beverages sweetened with sugar substitutes can have a drastic impact on mortality.
Of those participating, 11.5 percent of the people who each consumed at least two 8-ounce glasses of soft drinks daily were recorded to have died. By contrast, the subjects who each took in less than a glass of soda or a similarly sweetened drink a month had a collective mortality rate of just 9.3 percent.
So, what does all this mean for the average person? Well, according to the study, once the differences in lifestyles between the study’s participants had been analyzed and taken into account, artificial sweeteners and sugar were held responsible for this marked jump in the mortality rate. Specifically, it was concluded that those who had consumed those two glasses or more of sugary drinks per day were 17 percent more likely to have died than their relatively abstemious counterparts.
One interesting thing to note, however, is that the study seemed to unearth a fundamental difference between the health effects of natural sugar and artificial sweeteners. Yes, although both substances appeared to have influenced whether the subjects had since passed away or not, the causes of death of the participants threw up an interesting discrepancy.
Most notably, the researchers spotted an increased likelihood of succumbing to circulatory problems among those survey subjects who often consumed drinks containing artificial sweeteners. The individuals indulging in sugary beverages regularly, by contrast, seemed to run an increased risk of dying from digestive complications.
And if that isn’t nearly enough to convince you to ditch the low-calorie drinks, then consider this. While artificial sweeteners have often been touted as a slimmer’s dream, this may also be misleading. You see, it’s been suggested that low-cal beverages containing sugar substitutes may be contributors to weight gain.
Yes, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio collated eight years’ worth of statistics in a bid to find whether there was any link between diet drinks and obesity. And when the results were unveiled in 2005, they may have proved sobering reading for anyone looking to lose a few pounds.
In an interview with WebMD, the center’s Sharon P. Fowler explained what she and her colleagues had uncovered, saying, “When we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher [than for those who drank the sugary equivalents].” Fowler added, “There was a 41 percent increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day.”
All in all, then, artificial sweeteners may be more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to slimming down. And when you combine this knowledge with the thought-provoking findings of the European study, one thing becomes clear: if you want a longer and healthier life, you should probably ditch the diet sodas and sip on water instead.
And here’s a story about a mom who did just that – for both her and her kid. Yes, when Shan Cooper gave birth to her daughter, Grace, she had strong ideas about how she wanted to raise her child. Being a health fanatic herself, the new mom was particularly strict about the types of food that her baby consumed. And the effect that a diet free from carbs and refined sugar has had on the little girl can only be described as amazing.
Cooper is a self-professed “health and wellness coach” and “gut health enthusiast” who has studied the effect that the foods we consume have on our all-around wellbeing. She even has a degree in agricultural science, which is a strand of biology focusing on the growth and treatment of plants for human consumption.
And Cooper had battled with health problems for years; food allergies in particular had long been an issue. Her diet was specifically tailored to accommodate her needs, then, with the Brisbane, Australia, native choosing to refrain from consuming gluten, dairy and processed foods.
But in 2010 Cooper learned about the Paleo diet. For the unaware, the Paleo diet is a healthy eating plan that advocates avoiding added sugar, carbs and additives. It’s a regimen that promotes eating more natural, unprocessed foods, much like ancient man did – meaning lots of fruit, vegetables and organically reared meats.
“I just got sick of not feeling great,” Cooper explained to the Daily Mail in 2015. “That had become my normal, and [I decided] that it wasn’t going to be normal anymore.” Then when her daughter arrived in 2014, it followed that the health coach’s baby girl would eat in a similar way.
Besides breastfeeding Grace on a couple of occasions daily, Cooper also gives her little girl plates full of veggies along with servings of organic chicken. A Paleo diet steers completely clear of any dairy or grains and instead sticks entirely to the types of foods that “cavemen could scavenge for.”
All in all, then, what the infant consumes is miles away from the sugary treats kids usually like to eat. But Cooper in no way feels as if she denies her daughter the indulgences other children may feast on daily. In fact, the health coach is adamant that Grace “loves it.”
Furthermore, Cooper often shares the choices that she makes for her daughter’s meals on her Instagram page, @myfoodreligion. On the social media site, a young Grace can be seen happily chowing down on a single floret of broccoli, for instance. It’s food that might typically send children that young into meltdown.
And up until the age of one, babies will often be fed foods designed specifically for the consumption of newborns. Cooper never saw that as a viable option for Grace, however. Instead, the new mom would give her daughter food that she’d prepared herself, in accordance with Paleo diet guidelines and so free from unnatural processing, sugars and preservatives.
It’s a choice that Cooper believes has had an incredible effect on her daughter’s well-being. How? Well, she has claimed that at, the age of two, Grace has only ever had one cold. And the wellness coach claims that the child’s good health is thanks to the way in which her daughter eats.
“[Grace] spends a lot of time around other kids who are sick all the time,” Cooper explained to the Daily Mail. “[They] have snotty noses, coughs, colds. But she just doesn’t pick them up.” And the Paleo diet fan gives the credit for that success entirely to her daughter eating immune system-boosting fresh fruit and vegetables.
“It’s certainly not because I’m shielding her from [sick children],” Cooper added. “I absolutely think that a nutrient-dense diet is giving [Grace] a strong immune system.” In fact, the mom feels so strongly about eating well that she’s even written her own recipe book based around health foods.
However, although Cooper puts a lot of time and effort into preparing her daughter’s meals, she’s pretty easy going about processed foods creeping into the little girl’s diet at some point in her life. Indeed, with kids comes the prospect of children’s birthday parties loaded with cake, potato chips and sugary drinks.
But, as Cooper has said, “[What Grace eats now] is not weird, or anything that normal people wouldn’t eat. She loves it. I don’t feed her toast or cereal or anything like that. [But] I think, ‘That stuff is not going to kill her.’ If she eats a piece of bread, I’m not going to have a conniption fit.”
It’s a laid-back stance that Cooper is taking into her child’s future. “I’m not going to not let her go to kids’ parties,” the fitness devotee has insisted. “She’s going to go to kids’ parties and eat what’s there. I’m never going to go to Grace, ‘You can’t eat anything at this party. But I packed you some kale – here you go.’”
Instead, Cooper will credit her daughter with the intelligence to choose the foods that are right for her. The wellness enthusiast added, “[Grace will] be old enough to know that she can choose whatever she wants to eat. She’ll probably come home jacked up on sugar and cake and say, ‘Mom, I don’t feel very well.’”
And before long, Cooper has reasoned, her daughter will make her own connections between what she eats and how it makes her feel. The health devotee cited women in particular and their relationship to food and eating disorders, continuing, “[Grace will] also learn what makes her feel good and what doesn’t.”
Of course, not everyone is a fan of Cooper’s unorthodox methods of parenting. Dietitian Dr. Rosemary Stanton, for one, has cautioned others to think before they choose to follow Cooper’s lead. “It’s not usually a good idea to put a child on such a restricted diet, particularly when there are no valid grounds for it,” she told the Daily Mail.
Instead, Dr. Stanton has advised that grains and legumes, such as alfalfa and chickpeas, ought to be part of Cooper’s child’s diet. Meanwhile, Cooper herself remains baffled as to why her parenting methods are being questioned. After all, why should she be told that she could be damaging her child’s health, while other parents regularly take their kids to fast-food restaurants and people say nothing?
“[Why] eating real food is such a scandalous topic is just bizarre,” Cooper has said of her critics. “If you want to feed your kid one of the most nutrient-void pieces of c*** ever, knock your socks off. [But] people think that it’s offensive to eat a plate of vegetables [over] a piece of bread. That’s bizarre.”