Saccharin, sucralose, neotame, aspartame—these chemicals are what make diet sodas and low-calorie processed foods palatable. But ever since there have been artificial sweeteners, there’s been controversy about their potential health risks and benefits. As research continues to dig for definitive answers, here is what is known today.
Most Americans eat much more sugar than the federally recommended 10 teaspoons per day—three to four times more. And we’ve long known that overdoing sugar can lead to a host of health issues, including obesity, chronic inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
But does that mean you should switch to the pink packet?
First things first: There is no body of research showing that artificial sweeteners are a health risk for people who consume them moderately. The Food and Drug Administration deems artificial sweeteners as safe “for the general population under certain conditions of use.” Still, there are studies that link diet sodas to kidney decline and increased risk for stroke and heart attack.
A 2014 Israeli study involving mice suggested artificial sweeteners might lead to obesity and related diseases such as diabetes. The study showed that sugar substitutes changed the makeup of intestinal bacteria such that the energy from food was more likely to turn into fat and increase blood sugar. A study with humans yielded similar results but did not include enough participants to be conclusive.
In the short term, artificial sweeteners may help you cut calories or help wean you from sugary sodas and other sweets. But “it’s like a short-term diet,” says Robin Asbell, author of cookbooks including Great Bowls of Food. “The only thing that works in the long term is to make changes that you plan to stick with and live with.” And getting off real sugar only to get hooked on artificial sweeteners doesn’t do much good.
Perhaps the best option is to keep added sugars—real or fake—to a minimum. If you want something sweet, grab some fresh fruit.