Artificial Sweeteners – Are They Safe?

Written by Victoria Laios (APD)

Artificial sweeteners, also labeled as “fake sugar” is a trending topic within today’s media. Many articles, internet pages and television segments are giving it a “bad wrap” – claiming that artificial sweeteners are dangerous and can be bad for our health. Sugar intake is on the rise in Australia – the average Australian is consuming more than double the recommended intake [1]. People are also resorting to artificial sweeteners, in order to lose weight and reduce their kilojoule intake.  

This article will answer the question on many people’s lips – “Are artificial sweeteners safe to consume, or should we avoid them all together?”  In order to properly answer this question, we need to understand artificial sweeteners and how this can effect our body.

Artificial sweeteners – the overview

Artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive, formulated substances that contain no calories [2]. They are much sweeter than your conventional sugar and do not undergo digestion within the body [2].

They are classified as being either “chemical” or “natural” based [3]:

  • Natural sweeteners – derived from plant sources or sugar alcohols. These include Stevia and Natvia.
  • Chemical sweeteners – manufactured sugars (e.g. saccharin, sucralose and aspartame). Brands containing chemical sweeteners include Equal, Nutrasweet, Splenda and Sweet n’ Low.

Artificial sweeteners are also added to food and drink products that we regularly consume – soft drink, baked goods, chewing gum, fruit juice, cordial, lollies, ice-cream and yoghurt.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

There has been great debate around whether artificial sweeteners are harmful to our health. Many studies have raised concerns about the safety of artificial sweeteners [4] – these studies are generally carried out on animals instead of humans. Plus, the dosages tested are higher than amounts we would normally consume [4].

Due to the immense hype from the media, people are confused about whether or not these are safe products. Some Frequently Asked Questions we get from our clients include the following:   

Which artificial sweetener is best to have?

Natural sweeteners are a better option than chemical-based sweeteners. Unlike chemical sweeteners, natural sweeteners do not have a strong aftertaste and are more stable when used in cooking. Currently, there is no evidence to date showing their negative effects on human health [2].

Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer? 

NO – despite claims from journalists in the media, studies have shown no significant association between artificial sweeteners and increased cancer risk [2].  

Can artificial sweeteners cause weight gain?  

Artificial sweeteners are an attraction for many dieters – they have “no added calories” and are undigested in the body [3]. However, this can be misleading. People often perceive these products as being healthy and nutritious for weight loss. Diet free or “sugar free” products should not be consumed in excessive amounts – they can be nutrient poor and can still contain added kilojoules [2]. Also, these products do not satisfy our appetite – people can feel very deprived, therefore causing them to search for more food [2].

Sweeteners should be used in accompaniment with other healthy lifestyle changes, to maintain a healthy weight [2]. Stay away from the dieting approaches! It is important to follow a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Can I become addicted to artificial sweeteners? 

We know that artificial sweeteners do not satisfy your appetite – when consumed in large amounts, artificial sweeteners can have a “programming” effect on the body. This can result in people craving more sweet foods [3]. It is recommended to have artificial sweeteners in moderate amounts, to prevent this from happening. Food cravings should be satisfied with low GI and high fibre alternatives (e.g honey with wholegrain toast or muesli bar) – these will keep you fuller for longer, as opposed to high sugar foods.

So…..are artificial sweeteners safe to use?

YES – before artificial sweeteners can be distributed for sale, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) test them to ensure that they are safe for us to have [4]. Basically, there is not enough research or evidence to support claims that artificial sweeteners are harmful to our health.

Overall, artificial sweeteners can be consumed in moderation [3]. There is a great shift towards people using natural sweeteners such as Stevia. However, try not to have this in excess as it may lead to increased sweet cravings and also there is not enough research to understand their long-term effects on the body.

If you are interested in finding out more about artificial sweeteners please contact one of our Accredited Practising Dietitians’ today!