Artificial Sweeteners: How Deep Does the Rabbit Hole Go?

The obesity rate in the United States is continually on the rise with 154.7 million people age 20 and over who are considered overweight or obese (American Heart Association, 2013).  Being overweight has been associated with an increased risk of a number of chronic diseases including hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, as well as certain types of cancers (Bryngelsson & Asp, 2005).  One possible explanation for the rise of obesity could be due to an increased sugar intake within the diet.  On average, Americans consume approximately100 pounds of sugar and sweeteners each year with sodas and fruit juice as the top source of consumed calories (George Washington University, 2013).  One potential way to address this concern is through the use of sugar substitutes, which are food additives that have the taste of sugar, but have less food energy (i.e., calories).  Sugar substitutes can be naturally or synthetically derived with the latter known as artificial sweeteners.  The consumption of artificial sweeteners is a widely studied and highly debated topic in regards to not only its effectiveness in weight loss, but also its direct influence on overall health and wellness.

Artificial sweeteners is a topic of interest to me for a number of reasons.  At a young age, my mother noticed I was gaining an inappropriate amount of weight, which she concluded was mainly due to my soda consumption.  From that point forward, I was restricted to “diet” soda.  In my mind, I thought I could drink as much soda as I wanted because it contained zero calories.  From my own experience, a sugar substitute did not help me to lose or manage weight. As a firm supporter of a whole-foods based diet,   I do not think any artificial or synthetic food products can be considered safe or health-promoting.   My personal belief is that not only are artificial sweeteners an ineffective means to weight loss, but they also put an individual at risk for various health complications and negatively impact overall wellness.

As previously mentioned, artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are considered low energy and can be hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sugar (i.e., sucrose) by weight.  Aside from weight loss, some of the therapeutic reasons an individual may choose to consume artificial sweeteners are dental care, Type 2 diabetes and reactive hypoglycemia (Tandel, 2011).

This food additive is found in an assortment of products such as chewing gum, yogurt, juice, supplements and soft drinks.   While artificial sweeteners were discovered as early as 1879, they were not deemed “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until about one hundred years later, as recenlyt as 2002.  Some of the most common artificial sweeteners are saccharin (Sweet N Low/Sugar Twin), aspartame (Equal/NutraSweet) and sucralose (Splenda) each having various effects on the body.

Artificial sweeteners is considered a controversial topic partially due to the amount of mixed results in the scientific literature.  Raben et al. (2011) conducted a study comparing a sucrose-rich diet  with artificial sweeteners in slightly overweight healthy subjects.  Researchers found that after ten weeks, the subjects who consumed the high sucrose diet had significant elevations of postprandial glycemia, insulinemia, and lipidemia compared to the artificial sweetener group.  While longer term research should be conducted, this would suggest the consumption of artificial sweeteners could be beneficial in terms of maintaining blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

Chronic systemic inflammation is involved in many diseases of the body including cancer, diabetes, congestive heart failure as well as digestive disorders.  Various environmental and lifestyle factors can influence inflammation including the consumption of sucrose.  Sorensen, Raben, Stender and Astrup (2005) measured inflammatory markers in the blood of overweight men and women who increased their intake of sugar-sweetened foods and drink.  When compared to individuals who consumed similar amounts of artificially sweetened food and drink, the sucrose group not only gained body weight, but also showed increased levels of inflammation.  Again, this would suggest substituting sugar with artificial sweeteners may have various health benefits.

Despite FDA approval, some researchers suggest there are negative health risks associated with the consumption of artificial sweeteners.  For example, within the body, aspartame breaks down to methanol and quickly converts to formaldehyde, which could pose potential danger.  Trocho et al. (1998) administered oral doses of aspartame to rat subjects and found that formaldehyde does accumulate in the body and could potentially bind onto tissue proteins and nucleic acids.  The alteration of nucleic acids causing DNA mutations could lead to various autoimmune disorders or cell malignancies, which is significant.  This research is debated as it was conducted using rat subjects that  may not metabolize aspartame (methanol) similarly to humans; however, the results do suggest further investigation is needed and perhaps aspartame should be consumed with caution.  Furthermore, while the consumption of artificial sweeteners may be beneficial for certain individuals such as ones with reactive hypoglycemia, that is not always the case.  For example, aspartame is a known potential trigger for seizures and in many cases should be excluded from the diet.

Aside from the mixed results of scientific research, individuals should still proceed with caution when consuming artificial sweeteners with the intention of weight or diabetes management.  Even though artificial sweeteners do not raise blood sugar levels, the food or beverage being consumed may still be high in calories or carbohydrates. As a result, an individual may be more be more apt to fill up on these foods, which could potentially lead to inadequate nutrition and a multitude of other health concerns.

Artificial sweeteners also have a direct effect on brain chemistry and given the mind-body connection, this would suggest there are emotional implications for its consumption.  Yokogoshi, Roberts, Caballero and Wurtman (1984) administered aspartame to rat subjects and found large amounts of phenylalanine and its product tyrosine in the brain.  If aspartame was consumed with dietary carbohydrate, it would block the increased production of tryptophan and serotonin and thus lead to an acceleration of serotonin synthesis and release.  If serotonin cannot be synthesized properly, this could lead to symptoms of depression. As previously mentioned, if an individual uses artificial sweeteners as a means for weight loss or management and is unsuccessful due to over consumption, this too could cause a negative emotional impact.

Beyond its affects on the body, one could also investigate how artificial sweeteners play a role in our ecology and evolution as a human species. Since artificial sweeteners are synthetically created, an individual may not come to the conclusion that its production has a direct effect on the environment.  Scheurer, Brauch and Lange (2009) investigated the occurrence of seven artificial sweeteners in German waste and surface water after treatment.  Acesulfame, saccharin, cyclamate and sucralose were detected in the surface water as well as some river water.  Sucralose was also detected in samples of drinking water in the United States (Mawhinney, Young, Vanderford, Borch & Snyder, 2011).  Since artificial sweeteners can have adverse effects on certain individuals such as those prone to seizures, finding traces of it in drinking water could warrant concern.  Furthermore, if artificial sweeteners are infiltrating surface and river waters, this could eventually pose a threat to other living organisms other than humans.

On a much broader scale, Darwin’s theory of evolution, which has had a profound effect on the biological sciences, is now being utilized in medicine and nutrition (Lindeberg et al., 2003).  Compared to two million years ago, very little human evolution has occurred in the last ten to fifteen thousand years; however, this is not the case with nutrition especially since the industrial revolution and most recently with the emergence of fast food (Frassetto, Schloetter, Mietus-Synder, Morris & Sebastian, 2009).  Therefore, research poses that humans have maladapted to eating certain food products, such as those synthetically created, and could be one possible explanation for the increase in chronic diseases observed in current Western society.

After reviewing the exhaustive amounts of literature, the question remains: what are the ethical implications for consuming artificial sweeteners? Despite its approval, one might wonder if the FDA truly has the best interest of the people in mind. Also to be considered are the interests of large companies, such as Monsanto, that fund much of the research regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners. If artificial sweeteners are more cost-effective to produce, are food companies gaining profit at the cost of our health?  Even after all of the research, one might feel left with more questions than answers.

As discussed, the consumption of artificial sweeteners is a very controversial topic because it affects so many facets of life including physical and mental health, emotional well-being, ecological systems, evolutionary progression as well as spirituality.  In terms of health, one thing to consider is that consumption of artificial sweeteners is a relatively new phenomena.  While vast amounts of research has been conducted, and the FDA has deemed it GRAS, the long-term effects remain unknown and therefore should continue to be studied.  The debate on artificial sweeteners is far from over and the controversy will most likely continue for years to come.


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