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.