When renowned chef Sanjeev Kapoor comes on TV, urging you to quit sugar and switch to Sugar Free, I’m sure it feels like a beacon of hope to those of you trying to watch your weight. You aren’t alone. With health associations the world over giving a nod, albeit cautiously, to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar, diabetics and diet-conscious people the world over are turning to them as a pro-health choice. By offering the taste of sweetness without any calories, artificial sweeteners seem like they could be the one answer to effective weight loss and diabetes-management. Now you can finally eat your fill of jalebis and laddoos and neither your family nor your conscience dare stop you, because what you’re eating is sugar-free, and therefore healthy. Right? Actually, there is more to the story than that.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. How the human body responds to these chemicals, however, is complex and not yet completely understood. While they are not without their benefits, they also pose serious threats to your health. This article aims to present before you the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners to help you make an informed choice.
What contributes to their growing popularity?
- Weight control:
One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners is that they are non-nutritive — they have virtually no calories. In contrast, each gram of regular table sugar contains 4 calories – a teaspoon of sugar is about 4 grams. For perspective, consider that the average 12-ounce can of sugar-sweetened soda contains about 130-150 calories, almost all of them from sugar. The same amount of diet soda, sweetened with artificial sweeteners, delivers zero calories. If you’re trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain, the choice seems like a no-brainer.
- Diabetes management:
Artificial sweeteners are an attractive alternative to sugar for people with diabetes. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don’t raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates. However, because of concerns about how sugar substitutes are labeled and categorized, it is advisable that you consult your doctor or dietitian before using any sugar substitute if you are diabetic.
- Dental care
Because they do not contain any trace of sugar, artificial sweeteners, while providing you with the much craved-for sweet taste, do not contribute to tooth decay and cavities.
What are their possible health hazards?
Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Why? Critics of artificial sweeteners invoke a variety of health problems, including cancer. This is largely because of studies dating to the 1970s that linked saccharin to bladder cancer in laboratory rats. In fact, saccharin once carried a warning label that it may be hazardous to your health. However, the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies have ruled out scientific evidence for potentially cancer-causing properties of any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use by the FDA. As a result of such newer studies, the warning label for saccharin was dropped.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, a world-renowned physician and New York Times bestseller author, in his book, Sweet Deception: Why Why Splenda®, Nutrasweet®, and the FDA May Be Hazardous to Your Health, points out the harmful effects of aspartame. According to him, the lab animals tested for aspartame safety were found to have developed tumors in their bodies, which were misleadingly labeled “normal swelling” in the FDA-published in August 1977. Dr. Mercola also mentions that human reports to FDA, too, have associated aspartame to minor adverse reactions and life-threatening conditions that include migraines, changes in vision/heart rate/sleep patterns, nausea and vomiting, seizure, depression, memory loss, abdominal and joint pains, and even brain cancer. While it may be possible to question these conjectures, it may be worth the while to at least ponder over them.
Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, points out other more subtle yet potentially adverse effects of artificial sweeteners. He contends that people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits. This has mainly to do with our very human tendency to fool ourselves: “I’m drinking diet soda, so it’s okay to have cake.” Another concern is that these products possibly change the way we taste food. Dr. Ludwig explains, “Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes.” This implies that people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods (e.g. fruit) less appealing and non-sweet foods (e.g. vegetables) downright unpalatable. In other words, regular use of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods, and crave more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value. But you can control your cravings, you say? Don’t be too sure. Studies suggest that artificial sweeteners can be addictive. In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine and saccharine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine and oral saccharine, most chose saccharine.
We do not aim to scare you or de-popularise artificial sweeteners. While “sugar-free” desserts after every meal might be cause for worry, a small helping of artificially sweetened pudding once in a while is more than all right. As has been mentioned before, artificial sweeteners do have their benefits, and when used judiciously, do not generally produce adverse health implications. Like so many other things in life, for artificial sweeteners, too, moderation is the key.