After the previous RadLab article on artificial sweeteners and weight loss, there was a lot of discussion about health and safety concerns with these sweeteners. Just like with the weight loss and weight gain argument, when it comes to sweeteners, the views on health and safety are just as opposing.

One “expert” will claim these are a healthy alternative offering the sweetness of sugar without the added calories and other negative attributes of sugar. The next retorts with life threatening claims of cancer, insulin resistance and diabetes caused by these simulated sugar shams.

It’s hard to see how something so sweet and little could stir up such a buzz and backlash in the media. So today in the RadLab, I’m going to dive into what the research says about artificial sweeteners and their safety.

What are the true effects and costs of these artificial sweeteners?

Can they induce an insulin response and cause diabetes or do they spare you these sugar-like side-effects? Could their use lead to cancer or are they safe for our health? If you want to know the answers to these and several other burning questions, you’ll have to read this article and find out…

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Health and Safety of Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (ace-k) and others are common in diet beverages, foods and sugar alternatives, designed as a compound to capture the sweetness of sugar without any of the calories and other negative attributes. But do these sugar-free substitutes come at a cost?

Some people point out that artificial sweeteners can still trigger an insulin response, claim they produce toxic levels of methanol and formaldehyde and could even cause cancer. However, those people would not be able to quote any convincing research with these claims. Let’s break down each concern individually and discuss what the research shows.

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Insulin

According to the literature, there isn’t an appreciable insulin effect from any artificial sweetener in humans. Surely nothing even remotely close to what typical carbohydrates elicit.

The greatest insulin response comes from ace-K which has been shown in animals to stimulate insulin similar to glucose. Comparatively, neither Aspartame, sucralose nor saccharin directly stimulate any insulin response.

It is important to remember that most artificial sweeteners are between 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar and thus are present in amounts significantly smaller than sugar is.

Therefore, even when an artificial sweetener like ace-k is shown to elicit an equivalent insulin response compared to natural sugar, this would result in less than half of 1% of a naturally sweetened equivalent.

What you do need to keep in mind though, is if you’re adding pre-packaged brand-name sweeteners like Splenda or Sweet N’ Low, then there is a good chance of a significant insulin response. This is because the artificial sweeteners in these packets and branded products are cut with real carbohydrates.

Splenda for example, is only 1.2% sucralose. The remaining 98.8% of splenda is pure carbohydrates containing nearly 4 calories per packet. Only a labeling loophole allows them to call it zero calories and sugar-free. Thus, you will experience the full carbohydrate insulin response with the consumption of an artificial sweetener like Splenda because it’s not the pure sweetener itself.

If you are drinking something like a diet soda however, these diet drinks contain the actual artificial sweetener without the additional carbs so you wouldn’t experience the insulin response in drinks that contain the artificial sweeteners themselves (sucralose, aspartame, ace-k, etc.)

Regardless if you believe that artificial sweeteners are triggering an insulin response, it would still be a favorable solution relative to all the negative attributes from consuming large quantities of sugar (a topic for another post). Surely any insulin response from an artificially sweetened diet drink would be nowhere near as substantial as the full sugar equivalent.

So if you are consuming diet drinks with just the artificial sweeteners in them, rather than the brand-name mixed sweeteners, you would likely not experience any noticeable insulin response and therefore should have no concern with insulin resistance or diabetes.

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Cancer

The big C word. Whenever this gets thrown around, everyone starts to lose their sense of rational thinking.

Questions about artificial sweeteners and cancer arose when early studies showed that cyclamate in combination with saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats. As it turns out, the results from these 1970 studies in fact only applies to rats. Subsequent studies have failed to provide any evidence of any cancer in humans and currently there are no associations with cancer from any of the FDA-approved sweeteners.

Consequently, in 2000, saccharin was delisted from the U.S. national toxicology programs report on carcinogens where it had been listed since 1981 and the EPA removed saccharin from the hazardous substances listing in 2010. Since then it has been well established that saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.

Aspartame was approved by the FDA in 1981 only after numerous tests showed that it did not cause cancer or any other adverse effects. Despite a surge of fear in the 1990s of the cancerous hazards of aspartame, countless recent studies have refuted any correlation with aspartame and cancer in humans. For example, the national cancer institute examined human data from over half a million retirees with varying levels of chronic aspartame intake. This analysis concluded that aspartame was not associated with the development of lymphoma, leukemia or brain cancer.

The FDA approval of ace-K and sucralose as a general purpose sweetener occurred in 2002 following more than 100 safety studies conducted on each sweetener, including studies to assess cancer risk. The results of these studies showed no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health.

In regards to all cancer claims from any artificial sweeteners, the National Cancer Institute sites a 2015 review that found no link between the use of artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of cancer. So until further evidence is brought to the table or any initial evidence in the first place, these cancer claims are completely unfounded and unsupported.

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Metabolites

Insulin and cancer are not the only unfounded fears of artificial sweeteners. There is also an overwhelming concern for how artificial sweeteners are processed and metabolized by the body and if this process is damaging to your health. Most of these concerns are centered around aspartame.

Aspartame is broken down into 50% phenylalanine, 40% aspartic acid and 10% methanol during metabolism in the body. One safety concern is in regards to the methanol production causing nervous system disorders and other negative health effects. Indeed methanol can be toxic in high amounts. In fact, large doses of methanol can lead to blindness and even to death. However, methanol occurs naturally in foods and the amounts that result from the breakdown of aspartame is lower than with many “natural foods”. For example, the “natural” methanol content of fruit juice is about 2.5 times higher than from aspartame-sweetened drinks. A cup of tomato juice produces as high as six times as much methanol as a cup of diet soda.

The low quantity of methanol from artificial sweeteners is completely metabolized to formaldehyde and then immediately to formic acid. Lastly, formic acid is broken down into water and carbon dioxide. Human studies show that formic acid is eliminated faster than it is formed and no formaldehyde remains for any long period of time.

Concerns about methanol or formaldehyde production with artificial sweeteners are without merit considering the extreme low levels that are produced from metabolizing artificial sweeteners. The poison is in the dosage. The bottom line is the methanol production is so little, there is no chance it could cause a build up of formic acid in the blood to have any adverse effects.

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The Bottom Line of Health and Safety of Artificial Sweeteners

In terms of insulin response, impacts on insulin resistance and potential diabetes; artificial sweeteners would only elicit an extremely low, insignificant insulin response, especially compared to it’s sugar equivalent. What you need to be mindful of however is that most brand-name pre-packaged sweeteners are cut with regular carbs making them hardly any different from simple sugar itself and would elicit an almost identical insulin response as sugar.

Finally, in terms of the health risks, there is no evidence to be concerned for your health in relation to artificial sweetener consumption. Even when looking at studies consuming up to 200 times more than would be in a diet beverage there is no association with artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans.

And in terms of the metabolites and “toxic” chemicals produced from artificial sweeteners like aspartame, these same “toxic” chemicals are produced in the body in even higher amounts after consuming and digesting fruits and vegetables, drinking alcohol, and simply in our regular daily diets. The poison is in the dosage and the amount of methanol, formaldehyde and other potentially dangerous chemicals as a result of artificial sweeteners is nowhere near enough to cause any build up of formic acid in the body or cause adverse effects to your health.

This being said, there is no direct health benefits to adding artificial sweeteners in to your diet. So unless you are using them as an alternative to regular sugar consumption, there’s no need to introduce them. These aren’t super foods, or chemicals promising ever-lasting health, but they also aren’t something you need to demonize or run away from kicking and screaming. If used correctly to reduce sugar intake and overall calories they can be a healthy alternative to avoid some of the negative health implications of high sugar consumption in your diet.

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