The Dangers and Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
By Dr. Chad Walding, DPT
October 21st, 2019
Diet sodas, “reduced-sugar” labels, and those little pink packets of artificial sweeteners are everywhere in the grocery store and food industry – but are they safe? You’ve probably heard some claims that fake sugars are bad for you, while others claim nutritional benefits. So which ones are OK to consume?
Today, I want to dive into the different names for artificial sweeteners and sugars, what you should look out for on your food labels, and the potential side effects and risks of some of the fake sugars on the market. I’ll give you some helpful tips and tricks for baking and cooking with natural and safe sugar, and we’ll go over what Brenda and I use in our own kitchen and recipes. We’ll also point you to some of the best sweet treats on our site that use natural sugars and will satisfy your sweet tooth while also packing a hefty nutritional punch.
Hidden Sweeteners & What to Avoid on Product Labels
We’ve all experienced sugar cravings and know how potent they can be. You might have even struggled with a sugar addiction – a craving for sugar that is constant and seems to get worse the more you try to ignore it. It turns out that this is a neurological problem – sugar activates the brain’s pleasure and reward system, which means that consuming sugar makes us feel good because positive neurotransmitters are released as soon as it hits our tongue.1 No wonder we crave it!
As a country, Americans are consuming more and more sugar each day. This is partly because sugar is the most added ingredient to our pre-packaged foods. Even the non-sweet food products you buy often have added sugar. This is one of the reasons we recommend reading labels when purchasing food products and eating mostly whole foods, instead of relying on packaged goods.
However, sometimes the added sugars or artificial sweeteners are listed by different names and are not immediately recognizable if you aren’t sure what to look for. Here are several names of sugars and sweeteners to look out for on your food labels:
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal)
- Sorghum syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Acesulfame Potassium
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Saccharin (Sweet N’ Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Corn sweetener
You probably expect to see these ingredients in sodas, teas, breakfast cereals, baked goods, and often even canned goods. But they also hide in less obvious places, such as:
- Sugar-free chewing gum
- Toothpaste and mouthwash
- No-calorie or ‘lite’ beverages and soft drinks
- Sports drinks
- Meal replacement shakes
- Salad dressings
- Nicotine gum
- Natural fiber laxative pills
- Prepared or frozen meals
And that’s only a few of the places these sweeteners can hide! So how do these sugars and artificial sweeteners affect your health? To learn more about the dangers of sugar consumption and addiction, check out my article on how to beat sugar cravings. For today, I want to focus on the dangers of artificial sweeteners and the effects they have on your mood, gut, liver, and other important organs.
The Top 10 Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
Maybe you already know that artificial sweeteners aren’t great for you, but aren’t quite sure why you should avoid them. There’s been a lot of recent research into the effects of artificial sweeteners in our diet, and the evidence points to numerous side effects that are downright dangerous.
Here are ten risks associated with the consumption of artificial sweeteners:
- Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Scientists have found a correlation between diets high in artificial sweeteners and depression and irritability.2 Another study found that individuals with mood disorders are especially sensitive to artificial sweeteners and should avoid them.3 If you struggle with depression or moodiness, try cutting both sugar and artificial sweeteners from your diet for a week or two, and focus on getting great sleep and consuming enough water. Many people see a difference in their mood right away.
- Weight gain. Artificial sweeteners lower your metabolism, and because they interfere with the balance of insulin and glucose in your body, your brain thinks you’re more hungry, which can lead to overeating. For years, the low-calorific nature 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.4
- Cancer. Consuming artificial sweeteners has been shown to increase the size of cancerous tumors. Researchers have called aspartame, one of the more dangerous artificial sweeteners, a ‘multi-potent carcinogenic compound’ while another study referred to American’s consumption and the carcinogenic nature of aspartame an ‘urgent matter’.5,6,7
- 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 migraines and prolonged consumption of artificial sweeteners.8
- Cardiovascular disease. You might already know that the 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. You are especially at risk if you smoke or have a family history of cardiovascular disease, but everyone can benefit from cutting artificials sweeteners from their diet.9
- 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.10 Researchers have debated for years about the safety of consuming aspartame and sucralose – two commonly used artificial sweeteners found in diet soda and sugarless candy or gum – while pregnant.11 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.12,13
- Risk of diabetes (especially in children). In the past, doctors have recommended that diabetics avoid sugar and instead consume artificial sweeteners, but new studies have shown that artificial sweeteners may be causing more harm than help and can actually alter insulin sensitivity.14,15
- 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.16
- 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, and 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.17,18,19 If you think your gut health is off, I suggest taking a quality probiotic like our NativePath Probiotic to rebalance and restore your gut microbiome. Always make sure your probiotic contains several different strands of healthy probiotics and is histamine-free.
- Liver damage. Studies have shown that increased consumption of artificial sweeteners (especially in soft drinks) leads to lipid accumulation (fat) in the liver, fibrosis, and degeneration of the liver.20 Remove soft drinks from your diet and supplement with sparkling water, tea, or kombucha. The liver is the powerhouse of detoxification in your body, and you don’t want to put added stress on your body’s ability to detoxify!
As you can see, artificial sweeteners aren’t the saving grace of the food industry they were once thought to be. At NativePath, we encourage whole food diets that mimic our ancestral eating habits and limit processed foods. As new ‘healthy’ food trends develop, keep in mind that following a more natural food plan is always the safest and most nutritious option.
Of course, you’ll still need to sweeten certain foods. There are healthy ways to do this, so let’s take a look at the best options you can safely keep in your pantry.
Examples of Safe & Natural Sugars
With all of this talk on the dangers of artificial sweeteners, you might be wondering if you’ll ever be able to sink your teeth into a brownie again! While we don’t recommend overindulging, we have a great arsenal of safe and natural sugars that you’ll be able to use in your favorite recipes whenever you need a healthy dessert option. Here are some of our favorite natural sugars:
- Stevia: Stevia is one of our favorite sweeteners here at NativePath, and we use it in many of our 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, and pure stevia leaf has been shown to have some health benefits.21 Not all stevia products are safe, though, as many are highly processed. When purchasing stevia, look for products that only contain dried stevia leaf or are in tincture form. Stay away from powdered and bleached forms of this herb.
- Monk fruit: Monk fruit, a small orange fruit native to Southern China, is full of antioxidants and offers powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial benefits. Monk fruit extract is a good sugar substitute in small doses and can be useful to overcome sugar cravings, but don’t go crazy – remember, everything in moderation.
- 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.
- Dried fruit (like dates or raisins): Dates are often used to naturally sweeten dishes and are a great sticky ingredient that help recipes hold 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.
- 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. We love this Keto Tropical Chicken and Fruit Salad that contains pomegranate seeds and mango or this Keto Raspberry Chia Nuts and Seeds Breakfast Bowl for 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 breads, 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 amounts. Here are a few of the recipes that we’ve tried in our own kitchen and love serving to our friends and families:
- Pumpkin Spice 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: This is a favorite recipe of our readers because you can’t tell that the brownies are mostly made from sweet potatoes! They can be enjoyed without any guilt, are fudgy and decadent, and we guarantee you won’t miss the sugar in this recipe either.
- Buck Eyes: These tasty treats are high in fiber, magnesium, protein, and vitamin E. What’s not to love? Thanks to their small size and health benefits, these make a great snack on the go.
We’ve got lots more recipes for you to check out. Visit our recipe blog for more tasty recipes that are easy to make and boast lots of nutritional benefits!
Cutting Fake Sugars for Good
If you’re convinced that it’s time to make a positive change in your life – don’t wait. Start fixing your diet and lifestyle today. You have the opportunity to make lasting changes in your health, and at NativePath, it’s our mission to help you on that journey. We’ve created products like the 30-day keto fix and the 30-day paleo challenge to encourage you as you pursue your healthiest self, and these programs guide you as you make the switch to clean living and whole foods.
One of the first things I encourage you to do is to go through your cabinets and refrigerator and clean out any food products that have any of the artificial ingredients I’ve listed above. You’ll be less tempted to reach for artificially sweetened foods and packaged products if they aren’t there. It’s always harder to resist temptations or fall into old habits when you’re hungry or bored.
Next, try to 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, check out the recipes we’ve listed on our site for guidance and inspiration. We’ve included keto and paleo recipes, and some of the best dessert recipes like our Keto Smoothie Recipe or our Coconut Cream Chia Pudding recipe will give you ideas on how to create safe, healthy desserts for your family. You’ll love knowing the food you’re putting on the table is free of artificial sweeteners and other nasty filler ingredients, and your family will love the taste!
Finally, I encourage you to check out our NativeBody Reset program. This is an all-inclusive program complete with workouts, recipes, grocery lists, and other suggestions for creating your best self now. This program is designed to get you feeling like your best self, and quickly. If you’re ready to know what it feels like to live in your best body and regain your energy and confidence, join the NativeBody Reset today!