Debunking Myths About Artificial Sweeteners: A Scientific Perspective

In the world of nutrition, there’s no shortage of myths and misconceptions, especially when it comes to topics like non-nutritive sweeteners. It’s time to shed light on these misconceptions with a scientific perspective, allowing you to make the best choices that are informed by research!

Sweeteners are often clouded by fear and confusion in popular media. Which of the following claims have you heard?

  • Artificial sweeteners cause weight gain
  • Artificial sweeteners are harmful to ingest
  • “Natural” sweeteners are better

Let’s take a dive into non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) sweeteners! NNS are sweeteners that contribute sweet taste to food without raising caloric intake because they are not processed like sugar by the body. When looking at non-nutritive sweeteners, it is not merely a matter of categorizing them as universally harmful or benign – the issue is much more complex! To truly make informed decisions, we must consider factors such as the specific type of sweetener, the context in which it’s consumed, and the dosage. For example there are many non-nutritive sweeteners including: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K, or Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, advantame, stevia, and monk fruit! Blanket statements, such as “artificial sweeteners are harmful to health,” oversimplify the intricate nature of the topic and can inadvertently create unnecessary fear. 

Fostering a well-versed discussion involves delving into the scientific literature, acknowledging the data, and recognizing that moderation and individual context play pivotal roles in our dietary choices. By embracing the complexities and engaging in informed dialogue, we empower ourselves to make decisions that align with our health and wellness goals. Let’s dive into a few studies that will help shed light on this topic! 

Myth 1: Artificial Sweeteners Cause Weight Gain

Contrary to popular belief, artificial sweeteners can actually be a valuable tool in weight management and weight loss. They provide sweetness without the added calories of sugar, making it easier to reduce overall caloric intake. Many studies support the use of artificial sweeteners as a part of a balanced diet for those looking to manage their weight. A randomized control trial conducted in 2016 by Peters et al. examined the effects of water and non-nutritive sweetened (NNS) beverages on weight loss and maintenance during a 12 week weight loss plan followed by 40 weeks of weight maintenance. 303 men and women participated in the study receiving behavioral coaching, a weight loss plan, and support for maintenance. The group consuming beverages with NNS were asked to consume at least 24 fluid ounces of NNS beverages each day while the water group was asked to not consume any liquids with NNS. Individuals who were in the NNS beverage group were significantly more successful in losing weight at the 12 week mark and maintaining the loss at the 1 year mark than the group who consumed water alone! The NNS group also had a greater decrease in waist circumference and also subjectively reported no increase in hunger after the 52 week study. Subjects in the water group reported feeling more hungry at 52 weeks than at baseline. Both groups DID lose weight, improved metrics of cholesterol, and increased physical activity over the course of the study. 

These results showed that NNS beverages can be an effective tool for weight loss and were superior to water alone in the study. It is important to note that the individuals in the study above were consciously trying to lose weight. If an individual replaces sugar with artificial sweeteners but is not taking intentional measures to decrease overall caloric intake, they may be more likely to overcompensate with whole foods to account for the caloric deficit created by artificial sweeteners. For the majority of people, weight gain is a result of a caloric surplus from the body’s needs. Some studies may have a correlation (although no cause and effect) of artificial sweeteners and weight gain. But we must remember that individuals who are overweight or obese might be consuming greater quantities of artificial sweeteners to begin with. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? 

Myth 2: Artificial Sweeteners Are Harmful to Ingest 

Artificial sweeteners have been studied and deemed safe for consumption by major health organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Each artificial sweetener has an acceptable daily intake (ADI) – which is the amount able to be consumed daily over a lifetime without presenting health risks. For more information about how the ADI is determined click here. The ADI for aspartame – a common artificial sweetener is 50 mg/kg of bodyweight per day. If you weigh 180 lb (82kg) your acceptable daily intake of aspartame is  4,100mg. A typical 12 oz can of diet coke has around 200 mg of aspartame. This means that to be over the ADI you would need to drink more than 20 cans of diet coke DAILY to potentially see an impact on your health! Additionally, artificial sweeteners have been found to have no impact on glucose metabolism, insulin sensitivity, or cancer incidence (Ahmad et al. 2020, Yan et al. 2020).

Myth 3: Natural artificial sweeteners are always better

Naturally occurring non-nutritive sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit are often considered better alternatives than sweeteners such as aspartame. It is NOT true that just because something is perceived as natural that it is inherently better for us. There are a variety of items that are naturally occurring but unsafe to ingest. For example, wild mushrooms or raw milk can be unsafe to consume even though they are naturally occurring. Raw milk needs processing – pasteurization – in order to be safe! Stevia is often perceived as a better choice than aspartame. Aspartame, which has often received a lot of unpopular attention in the media, has been shown to have less of an impact on our gut microbiome than stevia (Ruiz-Ojeda 2019)! 

These examples show that it is important to check the scientific evidence for our choices rather than lead by what we hear from others or fear. By dispelling myths and understanding scientific truths about artificial sweeteners you can be equipped to make choices that promote your overall well-being. Moderation, balance, and context are key!  

We do not want to minimize the importance of prioritizing whole foods and a diet rich in nutrients! But, you can enjoy items with artificial sweeteners and still safely reach your goals. They may even help you in the process! 

Remember, your journey toward a healthier you demands a holistic approach that’s supported by evidence-based choices. If you are looking to dive into the studies yourself check them out below – or click on one of the videos below from Mike Israetel (PhD) and Dr. Layne Norton (PhD)! 

Scientific Sources

Ahmad, S. Y., Friel, J. K., & MacKay, D. S. (2020). The effect of the artificial sweeteners on glucose metabolism in healthy adults: a randomized, double-blinded, crossover clinical trial. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 45(6), 606–612.

Ahmad, S. Y., Friel, J., & Mackay, D. (2020). The Effects of Non-Nutritive Artificial Sweeteners, Aspartame and Sucralose, on the Gut Microbiome in Healthy Adults: Secondary Outcomes of a Randomized Double-Blinded Crossover Clinical Trial. Nutrients, 12(11), 3408.

Peters, J. C., Beck, J., Cardel, M., Wyatt, H. R., Foster, G. D., Pan, Z., Wojtanowski, A. C., Vander Veur, S. S., Herring, S. J., Brill, C., & Hill, J. O. (2016). The effects of water and non-nutritive sweetened beverages on weight loss and weight maintenance: A randomized clinical trial. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 24(2), 297–304.

Peters, J. C., Wyatt, H. R., Foster, G. D., Pan, Z., Wojtanowski, A. C., Vander Veur, S. S., Herring, S. J., Brill, C., & Hill, J. O. (2014). The effects of water and non-nutritive sweetened beverages on weight loss during a 12-week weight loss treatment program. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 22(6), 1415–1421.

Ruiz-Ojeda, F. J., Plaza-Díaz, J., Sáez-Lara, M. J., & Gil, A. (2019). Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 10(suppl_1), S31–S48.

Santos, N. C., de Araujo, L. M., De Luca Canto, G., Guerra, E. N. S., Coelho, M. S., & Borin, M. F. (2018). Metabolic effects of aspartame in adulthood: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 58(12), 2068–2081.

Steinert, R. E., Frey, F., Töpfer, A., Drewe, J., & Beglinger, C. (2011). Effects of carbohydrate sugars and artificial sweeteners on appetite and the secretion of gastrointestinal satiety peptides. The British journal of nutrition, 105(9), 1320–1328.

Tey SL, Salleh NB, Henry J, Forde CG. Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia- and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake. Int J Obes (Lond). 2017 Mar;41(3):450-457. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2016.225. Epub 2016 Dec 13. PMID: 27956737.

Yan, S., Yan, F., Liu, L., Li, B., Liu, S., & Cui, W. (2022). Can Artificial Sweeteners Increase the Risk of Cancer Incidence and Mortality: Evidence from Prospective Studies. Nutrients, 14(18), 3742.