It seems like we can’t run a simple errand — like grocery shopping — without being bombarded with a dozen choices requiring a dozen decisions that ultimately will affect our health and wellbeing. Thankfully, the Chalkboard Mag is here to shed a little light on a topic swirling with misinformation (and avoidance). Read on below to get the ‘skinny’ on all those skinny lattes.
WE VISIT our favorite coffee shop and order the usual: coffee with almond milk, no sugar. Instead, we reach for two packets of calorie-free sugar substitute. Good choice, right? Think again. In terms of long-term health, it’s possible that this small-seeming choice in sweetener comes with side effects.
Zero calorie sweeteners with no sugar may seem like a no-brainer food swap. In fact, switching to calorie and sugar-free sweeteners is a growing trend all over the world. As many of us are aware, sugar itself can lead to some serious health issues as well, from diabetes to obesity and high blood pressure. It’s no wonder many of us are making a switch to these alternatives, but is it the right call?
THE GROWING SUGAR-FREE TREND
According to the New York Times, 11% of food items on American supermarkets shelves will be labeled as reduced sugar this year. That’s a pretty large number in the grand scheme of things. What hasn’t changed, however, is America’s sweet tooth. This reduction in sugar does not mean these products are becoming any less sweet. In order to cut the calories that come along with table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, some sort of substitution for sweetener must be made.
The demand for artificial sweeteners is growing and they are popping up in everything: Diet drinks and sodas, desserts, savory foods and breads, energy bars, gums, sugar-free teas, chocolates, yogurts, creamers – even toothpastes, mouthwash and vitamins.
There are 5 artificial sweeteners approved for consumption – acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin (which many countries have actually banned,) and sucralose.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN?
If there are questions on the safety of sweeteners, then why then are they on the market at all? As we pointed out in a past article on sucralose, the issue stems from the fact that most artificial sweeteners are tested on lab rats, not humans. Rats are given such high dosages daily that the FDA has deduced we as humans would never consume the same quantities and so would never experience the same symptoms shown in laboratory rats. That being said, the artificial products produced in a lab and meant for humans to consume regularly do cause wide-ranging health issues in these rats and give us, personally, a cause for some concern. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know enough about these artificial sweeteners and their long term effects on the body to rule out any potential issues.
What we do know is that in studies done on lab rats, symptoms experienced include a wide range of issues including shrunken thymus glands, enlarged livers, kidney disorders, cancers and infertility.
The short term studies that have been conducted on humans have shown a much smaller spectrum of symptoms ranging from digestive disturbances, bloating, and weight gain to mood-related symptoms from anxiety, depression and mania.
The fact of the matter is, we don’t know enough about these artificial sweeteners and their long term effects on the body to rule out any potential issues.
Over the years the makers of sweeteners keep track of data from their users. This information is public and we can track firsthand the symptoms possibly associated with these products here. Here are some of the most commonly suspected risks associated with these calorie-free, sugar-free sweeteners.
POTENTIAL SYMPTOMS FROM SUGAR-FREE SUBSTITUTES:
INCREASED APPETITE/ WEIGHT GAIN
Isn’t one of the main assets of these sweeteners that they help us minimize our calorie intake and therefore our waistlines? While they have no calories, a number of studies on aspartame and saccharin have suggested that they may actually cause weight gain by interfering with fundamental homeostatic and physiological processes of the body. [1-4]
Technically, these sweeteners are not actually sugars at all, but they still are 200-600 times sweeter than table sugar and even more potent than high fructose corn syrup. This means that in sensitive individuals, this sweet flavor alone may still trigger and overstimulate our sugar receptor sites to activate the same pancreatic insulin response that sugar does. This could be problematic if the person consuming them has diabetes or trouble regulating their blood sugar levels. Of course this issue is not relegated to artificial sweeteners alone. The same could be true for more natural calorie-free sugar substitutes as well such as stevia. Be sure to gauge your reaction and limit these sweeteners especially if you already are managing blood sugar.
Reports of mood disorders have been reported with all artificial sweeteners. Users claim reactions ranging from dizziness, agitation and irritability, nervousness, migraines, depression to manic episodes. One study on aspartame suggests that diketopiperazine, a compound which forms when aspartame decomposes, may be responsible for some of these brain reactions . Aspartame is not supposed to be heated above 86 degrees F, and when it is, it converts to formaldehyde and then formic acid. The methanol toxicity from this chemical reaction may mimic multiple sclerosis and delayed hypersensitivity [6-7]. Much more data is needed to prove causality in these cases.
Sugar substitutes may be linked with a long list of skin reactions from numbness of the skin, swelling and inflammation, rashes and hives. It is still unclear exactly these allergies arise, however it is something to keep an eye out for, especially in sensitive individuals as well as children.
… these sweeteners are not actually sugars at all, but they still are 200-600 times sweeter than table sugar and even more potent than high fructose corn syrup.
Some of the most common side effects are linked to the wide range of intestinal complaints from boating and gas, intestinal cramping and diarrhea, constipation, to decreased beneficial gut flora. In severe cases, the loss of these beneficial bacteria or probiotics can cause damage to the GI tract, permeability and actually create food allergies and sensitivities in the process. This suppression of the immune system may lead to many of the other mental and bodily symptoms one might experience.
One of the most publicized risks associated with artificial sweeteners is cancer. In lab studies conducted on animals, brain tumors, breast cancer, lymphomas, leukemias and bladder cancers have been reported [8-9]. While there is not evidence of artificial sweeteners causing cancer in humans to date, we feel uneasy consuming any product that has a history of causing these sort of reactions in any living creature. Could it be that these products have not been around long enough to gauge their accurate long term effects on a human body? We’d rather not subject ourselves to the long term self study.
So, now what? Find the answer + a few (healthier) sugar-free subs over here on Chalkboard Mag! Want to skip the coffee all together? We’d suggest a Water Kefir or this Matcha Zen Smoothie!
Kirtida R. Tandel. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2011 Oct-Dec; 2(4): 236–243. Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits
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7. Jacob SE, Stechschulte S. Formaldehyde, aspartame and migraines: A possible connection. Dermatitis.2008;19:10–1. [PubMed] 8. Olney JW, Farber NB, Spitznagel E, Robins LN. Increasing brain tumor rates: Is there a link to aspartame? J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996;55:1115–23. [PubMed] 9. Zwillich T. Aspartame Safety Study Stirs Emotions. Italian Study Shows Sweetener Promotes Cancer in Rats; FDA Says It’s Safe. 2007.
Images via Melody Munn