At first, it sounds like a dream come true; a food even sweeter than sugar without any of sugar's pesky calories. Unfortunately, anything that sounds too good to be true usually is, and artificial sweeteners are one of those seemingly "healthy" foods that are actually anything but.

The first problem with artificial sweeteners is right there in the name: that they are nowhere to be found in nature, instead having been invented in labs by food scientists funded and fueled by profit-hungry corporations. Artificial sweeteners are also sometimes known as non-nutritive sweeteners, which points to another problem: their complete lack of nutritional value!

The "big three" artificial sweeteners out there are aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet 'N Low). Two others, Acesulfame potassium (Sunett) and D-Tagatose (Sugaree) have been approved by the FDA, but you're far less likely to run across them at your everyday Starbucks counter.

Of course, just because something is technically designated as "safe" doesn't mean it will have no ill health effects—after all, sugar itself is "safe," but it has been associated with health problems ranging from Alzheimer's disease to metabolic syndrome!

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Another big draw of artificial sugar is the prospect of enjoying a sweet taste without increasing blood sugar levels; yet evidence suggests that artificial sweetener actually can raise glucose levels and ultimately make it harder for your body to process glucose! Artificial sweetener intake has even been linked to a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes, an effect that existed independently of BMI.

Other studies have associated artificial sweetener intake with increased body weight, cardiovascular disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, pre-term delivery in pregnant women, and even total mortality in humans. Mouse models also have confirmed that artificial sweeteners may be detrimental to metabolic health.

There's also simply a lot we don't know about these strange sweeteners. For one thing, some of the studies that first confirmed the safety of artificial sweeteners were done using lower amounts that many people now consume in a day. These studies also wouldn't necessarily pick up on subtle health effects, or effects that only emerged after used a long period of time.

For instance, the artificial sweetener cyclamate was considered safe for almost 20 years, but when studies later found that it was associated with increased cancer incidence and birth defects, the chemical was banned, and it remains banned today.

Next, let's take a closer look at the three most popular artificial sweeteners, so we can see how awful they really are!

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Aspartame

Because aspartame is known to interfere with certain neurotransmitters, it has been suspected of causing symptoms as trivial as headaches and as serious as seizures and blindness. Rat studies have also associated aspartame with cancer, nerve damage, kidney damage, liver damage, increased oxidative stress, and brain damage.

Though some of these studies found that the risks of aspartame could be somewhat mediated by antioxidants, why take those risks at all? The Center For Science In The Public Interest (CSPI) recommends that the FDA should reconsider aspartame's status as safe, and frankly, so do we!

Sucralose

The artificial sweetener sucralose is 400–700 times sweeter than sugar. Though sucralose itself has zero calories, its most commonly used form, Splenda also contains dextrose (glucose) and maltodextrin. Thus, it actually has about 3.3 calories per gram: less than pure sugar, but not nothing!

Rats given sucralose also experienced a loss of more than 50 percent of a type of good gut bacteria called anaerobes, and their levels of these bacteria had yet to recover even 12 weeks after their sucralose intake ceased! Other research done on rats that suggests that the metabolites of sucralose may build up in our fat cells, where they can have unknown and potentially harmful effects.

Mice given sucralose were also found to have an elevated rate of cancer, and sucralose tends to generate toxic compounds called chloropropanols when exposed to high heat. The CSPI groups it with aspartame as something to "avoid," and we're also pretty skeptical.

Saccharin

Saccharin is 300–400 times sweeter than sugar. It was first discovered in 1879, but was banned for much of the 1970s after a study associated it with bladder cancer in rats. Though it was eventually re-approved after scientists failed to find similar results in humans, that doesn't mean it's necessarily any good for you. For one thing rat studies suggest that saccharin could be more addictive than cocaine!

Saccharin has also been associated with occasional allergic reactions, which can include headaches, breathing difficulties, diarrhea and skin problems. Plus, it has a rather bitter aftertaste, which is why it eventually became less popular than sucralose and aspartame.


Though any processed food labeled sugar-free is a big tip-off for the potential presence of artificial sweeteners in the ingredient list, artificial sweeteners are now even sneaking even into diet products that also contain sugar!

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You should also be aware that even many sugar-free products can be high in fat and calories despite their lack of sugar, and that these products can interfere with one's weight loss even in non-chemical ways.

For example, overweight people may think that because they "saved calories" by choosing a diet soda or another sugar-free product, they can eat more food later to compensate for those calories, when they really should just be reducing their calories altogether!

Then, when an artificial sugar devotee does head back to the table, they are likely to make poorer food choices because they're used to hyper-sweetened products. The natural sugars in fruit can't compare with Frankensugars, but a corn-syrupy brownie may come close!

Though they should still be used moderately, natural calorie-free sweeteners like stevia and sugar alcohols are far better choices than the sketchily sweet concoctions that probably never should made it onto our plates in the first place!
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