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  • Even If Artificial Sweeteners Are 100% Safe, They’re Problematic

    Most of the discussion on artificial sweeteners focuses on their presumed safety, of which I have my doubts.

    The “Generally Recognized As Safe” process is not very assuring, political/financial interests can trump scientific objectivity, some research studies certainly give pause, and there isn’t any data on the effects of consistent artificial sweetener consumption over the span of several decades.

    Let’s hypothesize, though, that artificial sweeteners are eventually cleared of all wrongdoing. Even then, with undisputed evidence that there isn’t the slightest health risk, I would urge everyone to stay away from them.

    Sugar, as we know, is everywhere — often in exorbitant amounts. One cup of Silk Dark Chocolate almond milk packs in 22 grams, as much as 7 Oreo cookies. Burger King’s “ultimate breakfast” platter contains as much as a can of soda. A single Pop-Tart, meanwhile, surpasses the daily limit of added sugar for 4-8 year olds.

    From a flavor standpoint, artificial sweeteners are in a class of their own. Aspartame — used mainly in diet sodas — is 200 times sweeter than sugar.   Acesulfame-K — used in the likes of Coke Zero and “manly” Dr. Pepper TEN –  is in the ’180 to 200 times sweeter’ range. Splenda, meanwhile, registers as 600 times sweeter than sugar.

    These chemicals (along with vague “flavor enhancers”, as if the case with Pepsi Next) assault our taste buds and accustom them to extreme flavors that can never be replicated by real food. It’s part of the reason why whole, minimally processed foods — even when prepared well — “lack a punch” to many people, leading them to seek out foods high in added sugars.

    The good news  is that taste buds can be retrained.  It takes roughly three weeks for them to become accustomed to lower levels of saltiness and sweetness.

    Allow taste buds to reprogram and recover from a constant barrage of chemicals and you’ll be surprised, for instance, at the slightly sweet taste of raw almonds, or just how extremely sweet a ripe banana can be. You’ll also scoff when you see advertisements in which a bowl of strawberries is topped with Splenda granules.

    Fructose — in fruits and honey — is sweeter than table sugar, but only roughly twice as much (almost meaningless in comparison to Splenda’s ’600 times sweeter than sugar’ status). Since honey includes fructose along with other sugars which are actually less sweet than table sugar, honey ends up registering as 1.5 times sweeter than table sugar.

    Even if they pose no threat to our health, artificial sweeteners dull our taste buds and accustom them to flavors that can not be matched in nature.  This is why I doubt I’ll ever stray from my standard “limit added sugars, avoid artificial sweeteners” recommendation.

    UPDATE: A point of clarification: I am aware that  artificial sweeteners are not used in a 1:1 ratio as sugar (i.e.: a can of Diet Coke does not contain 39 grams of aspartame as a substitute for the 39 grams of high fructose corn syrup in a can of regular Coke).  My concern is that artificial sweeteners confuse our taste buds with flavors that are not replicated in nature (after all, aspartame does not taste exactly like sugar; it tastes remarkably different) and take away from our enjoyment of whole, minimally processed foods.  While anecdotal, many of my “formerly Splenda-addicted” clients have remarked that once they ditched artificial sweeteners, they found their taste buds registering more flavors in foods they had previously found to be bland.

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    26 Comments

    1. Becca said on November 7th, 2011

      Exactly! I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Allen Carr Weight Loss method, but one of his main points is that if we genuinely liked chocolate, we’d eat raw cocoa beans – what we are tasting is fat and sugar.

    2. Andy Bellatti said on November 7th, 2011

      Hi Becca,

      Thanks for your comment. I am not familiar with Allen Carr, but I get what he is saying. For the record, I love raw cacao nibs and unsweetened cocoa powder, so I truly do love chocolate!

    3. Ben LeVine said on November 7th, 2011

      Absolutely agree Andy, it’s pretty sad how addicting our highly processed foods are becoming. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the High Fructose Corntroversy. Of course the corn lobby states that HFCS is on the same sweetness level as sugar…

    4. Chelsey @ Chew with Your Mouth Open said on November 7th, 2011

      Great post Andy! It was great to learn the average time frame for taste-buds to reprogram is 3 weeks, I’d always been curious! I gave up sugar and artificial sweeteners recently and have noticed a huge improvement. Even a little taste of artificial sweetener and I have a headache!

    5. Andy Bellatti said on November 7th, 2011

      Ben,

      My quick take is that even if HFCS/”corn sugar” is identical to cane sugar in every way possible, there is one huge difference — HFCS is GMO-derived, while cane sugar is not (beet sugar may be a different story). I think it is crucial, when we talk about food, not just to consider health effects, but also environmental impact.

      There is also, of course, the fact that because HFCS is so artificially cheap, it is used in exorbitant amounts in almost everything.

    6. Zach said on November 7th, 2011

      Aspartame may be 200 times as sweet as sugar but thats why we use 200 times less! So its just as sweet as sugar.

    7. Zach said on November 7th, 2011

      Lets think about this if you are right and they use a 1 to 1 amount of aspartame. That means when i drink coke zero it should be 200 times as sweet as regular coke!

    8. Andy Bellatti said on November 7th, 2011

      Zach,

      I didn’t assume there is always a 1:1 ratio. That said, artificial sweeteners provide our taste buds with flavors that are not replicated in nature (after all, aspartame does not taste exactly like sugar; it tastes remarkably different). While anecdotal, my clients who were once “Splenda addicts” have all mentioned how, once they stopped consuming Splenda, they found their tastebuds were suddenly picking up flavors in other foods that they hadn’t registered before.

    9. Lauren Slayton said on November 7th, 2011

      So well said I’m a little jealous. I do think that even if artificial sweeteners don’t kill us via cancer they are still capable of harm if they get us to overeat and over sweet and gain weight and become less mobile etc etc. They may or may not directly kill us but they will over time.

    10. Lauren Slayton said on November 7th, 2011

      meanwhile I’m giving a talk eat, drink and be healthy and didn’t realize there’s a willet book, same title, crap.

    11. Andy Bellatti said on November 7th, 2011

      Lauren,

      Thanks. It was something I wanted to get off my chest, because so often when I hear “all the data shows artificial sweeteners are safe”, I think about how not only is that up for debate, but that’s also not the sole concern. You make a good point about how these substances can affect our appetite and mobility, too.

      PS: Regarding talk title — how about “Eat, Drink and Stay Healthy”?

    12. Niel said on November 7th, 2011

      Does this include Stevia?

    13. Andy Bellatti said on November 7th, 2011

      Niel,

      See this post I wrote last month on Stevia (and Purevia, Truvia, etc.): http://www.eatingrules.com/2011/10/stevia/

      For the record, I don’t consider true Stevia (Stevia leaves that are dehydrated and ground into a powder) an artificial sweetener.

    14. shawmutt said on November 7th, 2011

      “…and there isn’t any data on the effects of consistent artificial sweetener consumption over the span of several decades”

      Yes there is, as far as aspartame:

      http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/are-artificial-sweeteners-safe/

      “When the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food evaluated aspartame, they found over 500 papers on aspartame published between 1988 and 2001. It has been studied in animals, in various human populations including infants, children, women, obese adults, diabetics, and lactating women. Numerous studies have ruled out any association with headaches, seizures, behavior, cognition, mood, allergic reactions, and other conditions. It has been evaluated far more extensively than any other food additive.”

      I can’t speak for the taste really. I have a diet soda or two daily and that’s about all the artificial sweetener I get.

    15. Andy Bellatti said on November 7th, 2011

      ‘Shawmutt’,

      I wasn’t referring to different research studies carried out over the course of decades, but research that looked at *consumption* over the course of several decades (i.e.: what happens when we consume aspartame on a daily basis for 40 years?).

      Also, as far as aspartame’s safety goes, I recommend you read the link I posted hyperlinked in the second paragraph (“political/financial interests can trump scientific objectivity”) for a lengthy, fascinating read on aspartame politics.

    16. Niel said on November 7th, 2011

      Thanks Andy! I started following your site recently and, woe is me, bought Stevia this morning for my dad’s tea.

    17. em. said on November 8th, 2011

      I’ve never been able consume anything with artificial sweeteners. Despite the claims of being orders of magnitude sweeter than sugar, they are extremely bitter to me. I am not sure why I cannot perceive its sweetness, but it’s probably a good thing I can’t.

    18. Lauren said on November 9th, 2011

      You might be interested in my story. I used to consume artificial sweetener by the truckloads–in my oatmeal, tea, diet soda, yogurt, EVERYTHING. If it was low-calorie and artificially sweetened, you can bet I got my hands on it.

      Just over a year ago, I started to embrace the whole foods diet, and since I had successfully lost weight and had absolutely no reason at all to use zero-calorie sweeteners, I decided to quit cold turkey. Not only was it INCREDIBLY hard to enjoy a glass of tea for MONTHS (it felt like drinking hot water…my taste buds were shot!), but I also experienced intense withdrawal symptoms for WEEKS. Within just a couple days of quitting ALL artificial sweeteners, I started having piercing headaches (and I RARELY get headaches), shaky hands, nausea, and trouble sleeping. And again, that lasted for weeks. Because of this, I refuse to believe that artificial sweeteners are anything but an addictive and dangerous mixture of chemicals.

      Also, I was out for ice cream with my friends this summer, but being lactose intolerant, I tried the restaurants flavored ice/sorbet kind of stuff. I don’t even know what to call it haha, which should probably signal that I shouldn’t have eaten it. Ten minutes after my first bite, a piercing headache came. Sure enough, I found out later that it was sweetened with Splenda.

    19. Andy Bellatti said on November 9th, 2011

      Lauren,

      Thank you for sharing your story.

      What is important to point out is that symptoms like the ones you describe go unnoticed/undiscussed by government agencies because they are often not reported to the FDA. I can’t tell you the number of anecdotes like yours that I have been e-mailed or told over the past few years — especially with Splenda.

    20. Stephanie said on November 15th, 2011

      What about when it comes to diabetes management? I agree with you in overall health for the average person, but in people with diabetes who can’t stray away from sweets and can’t get blood sugars under control to prevent further complications, I still think there is a place for it in our practice. I am a dietitian too, by the way.

    21. Andy Bellatti said on November 15th, 2011

      Stephanie,

      In my work with people with diabetes, I have never once recommended they eat artificial sweeteners. Most of them have thanked me, since they think “snack bars for diabetics” taste awful, as do most sugar substitutes. They would much rather take a “carb serving” and put some banana slices on their oatmeal than a packet of Splenda. I also find that the individuals I have counseled who have diabetes prefer to eat real food and manage their carbohydrate intake that way than just pour packet after packet of Splenda into a beverage to make it cloyingly sweet.

    22. Kate said on December 7th, 2011

      I’m diabetic and I’d have to disagree that every diabetic wants to have an additional carb serving at breakfast, and add the bananas.

      I typically eat a breakfast of egg/egg whites/veggies in the morning to best control my blood sugar.

      I may occasionally utilize some aspartame in oatmeal or tea a few times a month. I’m not really familiar with Splenda. Nutrasweet doesn’t at all have the same feel as concentrated sugar hitting your tongue though.

      As far for special foods such as snack foods for diabetics…many of these sorts of products contain sorbitol, which can be problematic for other reasons. These products tend to be pricy as well.

    23. Andy Bellatti said on December 7th, 2011

      Kate,

      From my work with many people living with Type 2 diabetes, they expressed a strong preference to having something sweet that counted for their carbs (ie: sliced bananas) rather than artificial sweeteners with their meals. I am not sure what you mean when you say you disagree with that, as what I am sharing is my own experience with approximately 150 individuals.

      I was not saying I added extra carb servings “just because”, but if someone wanted a sweet snack, I would recommend some apple slices with almond butter as opposed to a “diabetic snack bar” with artificial sweeteners.

      As far as sorbitol goes, it is not an artificial sweetener, but a sugar alcohol. Two very different things. Sorbitol is problematic for many because it very easily causes bloating and gastrointestinal distress.

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