Blog Post by Coach Julie
NCI Certified Nutrition Coach L1 and Mindset Coach
Artificial sweeteners have been the bastard of the nutrition and fitness industry lately. They are getting the blame for cancer, gut health issues, disordered eating and blood sugar spikes. But what is the truth about artificial sweeteners.
The three most popular artificial sweeteners on the market today are: aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. These sweeteners are often found in popular foods that have been reformulated into a “zero sugar” version which often results in a reduced calorie option of the popular alternative. For example, I enjoy Sprite Zero because it offers a “treat” with dinner for zero calories where a can of Sprite is about 120 calories. Sprite Zero contains aspartame to give it the sweet flavor without the calories mounting.
These sweeteners have been on blast by the media about their “harmful” effects for years. The issue with media, is that it is almost always sensationalized to gather attention. Clicks and shares usually mean income for news media so you will often see stories overly sensationalized to garner more attention. You can see this very clearly in the amount of stories on news outlets about terrorism and violent crimes. It has created an attitude that the world is a super dangerous place, but actual studies have shown that crime has been down the last several years.
The WHO (World Health Organization) came out a few years ago and said there MAY be a link between artificial sweeteners and cancer risk. This simple, yet uncertain claim has sparked the media firestorm that has created a line in the sand between nutrition researchers and cherry picking, media outlets that are trying to boost their bottom line. In an great article by Mike Matthews of Legion Athletics, Mike shows a great graphic on where the WHO categorized artificial sweeteners. He stated, “The WHO is placing aspartame in Group 2B. Thus, according to the WHO’s assessment, aspartame is about as likely to increase your cancer risk as aloe vera, carpentry, and eating pickled vegetables.” I’m not real sure about you, but if I find joy in one Sprite Zero per day, I feel relatively safe doing so.
There have been recent studies lately that are showing that there is NO association between these sweeteners and cancer. In a recent news story on Barbend, the study has dispelled the WHO’s previous claims and actually shown that zero calorie sodas may be beneficial for health if it’s used to replace regular soda for weight loss because it aids in weight loss and reduces the overall sugar intake.
The other big concern surrounding artificial sweeteners is their effect on gut health. There have been small sample studies done in rats on the effects of sweeteners on the gut microbiome. The issue is, rat studies don’t always translate well to humans. Most of these studies were feeding the rats toxic amounts of sweeteners that would translate to obscene numbers in humans. A recent article on StrongerU as well as an article on BioLayne, show the limitations associated with the rat studies. Overall, the studies on gut microbiome have been widely inconclusive.
Some social media influencers have argued that these sweeteners promote obesity by increasing cravings. Here’s the thing, this argument also has no conclusive evidence of this. As a nutrition coach, I believe if you maintain a 80-20 diet in nutritious foods and use these zero calorie foods and drinks as a “treat” that subs for the higher calorie options, you’re going to be just fine. I don’t believe that these foods drive cravings more than any other food option. Realistically, this argument could be made about most highly processed, higher carb foods, they also tend to promote cravings because carbs do not offer the satiating effect you receive from protein.
With all of the recent research, I’m not willing to tell any of my clients to stop choosing zero calorie sodas over regular sodas. I would caution that too much of any good thing can be a bad thing. The studies have not shown conclusive evidence of causing harm in small amounts. If you are drinking obscene amounts of these sweeteners, we need to have a different conversation because I would assume you’re having health issues. Those issues would be associated with dehydration NOT the artificial sweeteners. Overall, the benefits of artificial sweeteners far outweigh the potential risks, if used in a reasonable amount.
Kayli is a certified personal trainer and online coach that specializes in fitness, wellness, nutrition, mindset, mobility and everything in between.