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Updated on October 20, 2021
10 Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners, Plus Natural Alternatives You Can Turn To
Diet sodas, reduced-sugar labels, those little pink packets of artificial sweeteners…
These manipulative “food” products seem to be everywhere you turn—but are they safe?
In this article, I reveal the 15 most common artificial sweeteners, their 10 harmful side effects, how to look out for them on food and beverage labels, and how to cut them out for good.
The History of Artificial Sweeteners
Did you know that sugar is just as addictive as cocaine (1, 2)?
No wonder it’s a challenge to kick that nagging sweet tooth.
Sugar is literally designed to activate your brain’s pleasure and reward system—releasing opioids and dopamine—both of which provide you with a sense of euphoric bliss (3).
Let me take a moment to paint a picture of sugar’s complicated history…
Sugar addiction skyrocketed during the “fat-free” craze in the 1960s—a time in which Americans avoided fat like the plague and instead turned to sugary, processed foods in hopes of a leaner body (4).
However, once the fat-free enthusiasts began to see the detrimental (i.e. fattening) effects of sugar, zero-calorie artificial sweeteners were born.
Cue the following events…
The Big Food and Big Chemical industry take advantage of millions of misinformed Americans with artificial sweeteners and deceptive marketing tactics.
Processed breakfast cereals, diet sodas, and sugar-free candy hit store shelves.
Weight Watchers touts its low-cal diet plan.
If you’re reading this article, then odds are, these fluctuating health fads have left you feeling lost, frustrated, and downright discouraged.
It’s not your fault, though. The Big Food industry is very intentional (and manipulative) with the foods they manufacture.
Their process goes a little something like this: Pump products full of artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and GMOs. List ingredients by different, unrecognizable names that the average person can barely pronounce. And then slap “Sugar Free” or “May Prevent Heart Disease” on the label.
15 Artificial Sweeteners to Look Out For on Food and Beverage Labels
You may as well need laser vision to see all of the hidden sugars in your food and beverages. But since that’s not possible (yet), here’s a list of artificial sweeteners to look out for and avoid on ingredient labels (5).
- Acesulfame Potassium (or Ace-K)
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal)
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup
- Saccharin (Sweet N’ Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
It’s expected to see these ingredients in sodas, teas, breakfast cereals, baked goods, and candies. But they also hide in less obvious places...
Unexpected Places Where Sugar Hides
- Sugar-free chewing gum
- Nicotine gum
- Toothpaste and mouthwash
- Natural fiber laxative pills
- No-calorie or ‘lite’ beverages and soft drinks
- Sports drinks
- Meal replacement shakes
- Salad dressings
- Marinara sauce
- Prepared or frozen meals
- Coffee creamer
- The list goes on…
So how do these artificial sweeteners affect your health? Besides the fact that they lead to intense sugar cravings, other dangers pose a negative effect on your mood, gut, liver, and other important organs.
The Top 10 Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
You now know what sugars to look out for, but what are the actual dangers of those sugars and artificial sweeteners?
Recent evidence points to numerous side effects that are downright dangerous. Here are the top 10...
1. Depression, Anxiety, and Mood Disorders
Scientists have found a correlation between diets high in artificial sweeteners and depression and irritability (6).
Another study found that individuals with mood disorders are especially sensitive to artificial sweeteners and should avoid them (7).
If you struggle with depression or moodiness, try cutting out sugar and artificial sweeteners for 1 to 2 weeks. In addition, focus on getting adequate amounts of both sleep and water. Many people see a difference in their mood right away.
2. Weight Gain
Artificial sweeteners lower your metabolism by interfering with the balance of insulin and glucose in your body. When this happens, your brain thinks you’re more hungry, which can lead to overeating.
For years, the low-calorie appeal of artificial sweeteners was considered a safe alternative to individuals seeking to lose weight. However, artificial sweeteners are now known to alter the gut microbiome, leading to weight gain (8).
Consuming artificial sweeteners has been shown to increase the size of cancerous tumors.
Researchers have called aspartame—one of the most dangerous artificial sweeteners—a ‘multi-potent carcinogenic compound’. Another study even referred to America’s consumption of aspartame as an ‘urgent matter’ (9, 10, 11).
There are approximately 974 food products containing aspartame, including diet soda, sugar-free ice cream, sugar-free candy, breakfast cereals, gum, yogurt, and coffee creamer, among others (12).
4. Headaches and Migraines
If you suffer from frequent headaches or migraines, it’s important that you avoid artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame).
Recent studies have found dietary links between headaches and/or migraines and prolonged consumption of artificial sweeteners (13).
5. Cardiovascular Disease
Consumption of artificial sugars is connected to obesity, which can place an undue burden on your cardiovascular system. These cardiometabolic conditions include heart attack, stroke, and hypertension.
Whatsmore, there’s an increased risk if you smoke or have a family history of cardiovascular disease (14).
6. Risk for Pregnant Women
Studies show that children whose mothers consumed artificial sweeteners during pregnancy and lactation had a higher risk for obesity and metabolic syndrome disorders (15).
Researchers have debated for years regarding the safety of aspartame and sucralose consumption—two commonly used artificial sweeteners found in diet soda and sugarless candy or gum—while pregnant (16).
There is also evidence that consumption of artificial sweeteners prior to birth can lead to weight gain in babies and is correlated with preterm birth (17, 18).
7. Risk of Diabetes (especially in children)
8. Stroke, Dementia, and Memory Loss
A 2017 study found that artificially sweetened soft drinks led to increased risk of stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, while soft drinks sweetened with sugar were not associated with increased risk.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can consume sugar without some risk, but it does point out the importance of only including naturally occurring substances in your diet (21).
9. Increased Risk of IBS and Crohn’s Disease
High consumption of artificial sweeteners like Splenda (another name for sucralose) has been shown to alter the microbiome of your gut—the powerhouse of your digestion and immune system.
Not only that, artificial sweeteners have been linked to gut irritability and in some cases, can trigger Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease in susceptible patients (22, 8, 23).
If you think your gut health is off, take a quality probiotic to rebalance and restore your gut microbiome.
NativeTip: Make sure your probiotic contains several different strands of healthy probiotics and is histamine-free.
10. Liver Damage
Studies have shown that increased consumption of artificial sweeteners (especially in soft drinks) leads to lipid (fat) accumulation in the liver, fibrosis, and degeneration of the liver (24).
Swap out soft drinks with sparkling water, tea, or kombucha. The liver is the powerhouse of detoxification in your body, and you don’t want to put any added stress on your body’s ability to detoxify!
5 Safe and Natural Sugar Substitutes
With all of this talk on the dangers of artificial sweeteners, you may be wondering if you’ll ever be able to sink your teeth into a brownie again.
While we don’t recommend overindulging, we do have 5 safe and natural sugar substitutes that you’ll be able to use in your favorite dessert recipes...
Stevia is an herb native to South America and is around 100 times sweeter than sugar, so it can be used in very small doses to sweeten recipes (25).
Pure stevia leaf has even been shown to have some health benefits like reducing caloric intake, blood sugar levels for those with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and the risk of cavities (25, 26, 27, 28).
Keep in mind, not all stevia products are safe, as many are highly processed. When purchasing stevia, look for products that contain only dried stevia leaf or are in tincture form. Stay away from powdered and bleached forms of this herb.
2. Monk Fruit
Monk fruit, a small orange fruit native to Southern China, is full of antioxidants and offers powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial benefits (29).
Monk fruit extract is a great sugar substitute in small doses and can be useful to overcome sugar cravings.
3. Date Sugar
Made of pulverized dates and chock full of fiber and potassium, date sugar can be a great brown sugar substitute in baking recipes (30).
4. Dried Fruit
Dried fruit like dates or raisins are often used to naturally sweeten dishes.
Another perk to using these ingredients is their stickiness, which helps hold recipes together (like this Raw Chocolate Banana Pie).
Additionally, dried dates and other dried fruits offer lots of fiber and minerals. Try adding dried fruit as a topping to your salads or smoothies for small flavorful bursts of sweetness.
5. Fresh Fruit
Sometimes called ‘nature’s candy’, fresh fruit and berries are a safe and natural way to curb sugar cravings and add nutritional benefits like vitamins and fiber to any meal or dessert.
This Keto Tropical Chicken and Fruit Salad contains pomegranate seeds and mango while this Keto Raspberry Chia Nuts and Seeds Breakfast Bowl is a delicious and colorful breakfast option.
Baking with Natural Sugar Substitutes
If you love baked goods, it can be especially hard to part ways with sugar or artificial sweeteners, since you’re probably used to using those ingredients in your bread, desserts, or cookies.
All of the substitutes we listed above can be used in baked goods, but you might need to adjust your original recipes and play with the amounts.
Here are a few of the recipes that we’ve tried in our own kitchen and love serving to our friends and family:
- Paleo Pumpkin Bread: This recipe will fool anyone—you won’t miss the sugar! Because pumpkin is naturally sweet and thanks to the spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, this recipe doesn’t need to be sweetened much but does use liquid stevia. This recipe is loaded with fiber and vitamin A, so it packs a powerful health punch as well.
- Fudgy Sweet Potato Brownies: Think your brownies can’t be healthy? Think again. These fudgy sweet potato brownies can be enjoyed with zero guilt—and they don’t even taste like sweet potatoes!
- Raw Chocolate Banana Pie: Loaded with healthy fats from avocados and walnuts, this chocolatey treat is loaded with antioxidants from cocoa and healthy fats that are heart and diet-friendly.
Already drooling? Visit our recipe blog for more delicious (and nutritious!) recipes.
3 Tips to Cut Out Fake Sugars for Good
Say goodbye to fake sugars and say hello to restored vitality and confidence.
I’m going to be honest, cutting out sugar will be HARD. It will feel impossible for the first week or two, but after that, you’ll begin to crave real, whole foods.
To help you cut out fake sugars for good, do these 3 things:
1. Clean Out Your Pantry, Fridge, & Freezer
Go through your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer and clean out any food products that have the artificial ingredients listed above.
You’ll be less tempted to reach for processed, packaged, sugary products if they aren’t there. It’s always harder to resist temptations or fall into old habits when you’re hungry or bored.
2. Meal Plan & Meal Prep
Set aside one night a week to do meal planning and some basic food prep to make cooking easier on yourself throughout the week.
If you’re feeling stuck about what to cook for dinner now that you’ve cleaned out your pantry, get inspired with these recipes.
3. Join the NativeBody Reset
The NativeBody Reset is an all-inclusive program complete with workouts, recipes, grocery lists, and other suggestions for creating your very best self.
It’s designed to get you feeling (and looking!) like your best self—quickly.
As a doctor of Physical Therapy, Senior Wellness Expert, and co-founder of NativePath, Dr. Walding has helped millions of people improve their quality of life from the inside out—by speaking, writing, and educating others on how to live life a little more #OnThePath.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.