Avoid artificial sweeteners – the health risks aren't sweet - opinion

Whole foods are health-promoting, while ultra-processed foods cause illness, disease, and early mortality. Artificial sweeteners, as their name implies, have nothing to do with whole, real food.

Cans of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI)
Cans of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi.

Over the last several months, there has been a deluge of health news in the mainstream media. From new studies confirming links between what we eat and heart disease to hormone replacement therapy being associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the media has been busy. But nothing has been more prominent than the news concerning artificial sweeteners over the past half year. 

The World Health Organization now discourages non-sugar sweeteners (NSSs) to control weight or reduce the risk for diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. These sweeteners include aspartame, saccharine, sucralose, stevia, and other ingredients. The recommendation is based on the findings of a review of data from 283 studies in adults, children, pregnant women, and mixed populations.

The findings suggest that use of NSSs does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children. They also suggest that long-term use of NSSs may have potential undesirable effects such as increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and all-cause mortality in adults.

Regarding the risk for cancer, results from case-control studies suggest an association between saccharine intake and bladder cancer. It is interesting that decades ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, citing a study done by the National Cancer Institute, pointed out the connection between saccharine and bladder cancer.

How long have artificial sweeteners been around?

Saccharin was discovered accidentally in 1897 by a Johns Hopkins University. Cyclamates and aspartame were also discovered in an accidental manner, although it was Hyman Kirsch who started using cyclamates in his beverage called No-Cal. 

 Sugar (credit: INGIMAGE)
Sugar (credit: INGIMAGE)

More than 50 years ago, Coca-Cola came up with its first diet drink called Tab. But it was the introduction of Diet-Rite Cola that came out in 1960 that really was the catalyst for the diet-drink industry. Since then, we’ve seen Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi Max, and the list goes on and on. Eventually, the food industry began putting them into “diet” foods claiming health benefits. What was the idea here? Less sugar, fewer calories, less weight and it would have no effect on raising blood sugar in diabetics. However, we have found that not only wasn’t this effective, there has even been a reverse effect.

A new study published this past March, showed that erythritol (this comes in many names but usually we see it as sorbitol) is closely associated with risk for “major adverse cardiovascular events.” In other words, people who have high blood levels of erythritol are more prone to heart attacks, strokes and even death. Subsequent to this, was another new study on sucralose. 

Fears over non-sugar sweeteners 

THIS NEW study was so alarming that researchers said people should stop using it and that the government should regulate it more. We are talking about Splenda, which is also used as an ingredient in packaged foods and beverages. The researchers found that sucralose causes DNA to break apart, putting people at risk for disease. They also linked sucralose to leaky (permeable) gut syndrome. That can lead to autoimmune conditions. Symptoms are a burning sensation, painful digestion, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

Although all of these sweeteners have been approved for use and have been determined to be safe by government authorities, their continued use has been shown to be problematic. Some sweeteners are known to cause bloating and stomach discomfort as well as rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, migraine headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain. 

In an interview a few months ago, gastroenterologist Dr. Will Bulsiewicz stated that when his patients complain of bloating, the first thing he asks them is if they consume artificial sweeteners. Somehow, as mentioned, these are all generally regarded as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Here in Israel, a study released this past year showed that three of the most popular sweeteners absolutely cause dysbiosis in the microbiome (gut bacteria), and that in turn increases your chances of weight gain and type 2 diabetes. A study conducted at Harvard Medical School shows that consuming diet drinks may actually increase the risk of heart disease. In this study, people who drank more than one diet or regular soda per day experienced a 25% increased risk of impaired fasting glucose and high triglyceride levels. They had a 31% greater chance of becoming obese, and a 44% increased risk of metabolic syndrome. 

There have been many more studies over the last 15 years showing similar negative effects of consuming artificial sweeteners. In an article in 2019, Dr. Michael Greger claimed that diabetes increases with use of saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose. The very products that have been touted for more than half a century to reduce weight and prevent diabetes are doing the exact opposite!

As I have pointed out time and time again, whole foods are health-promoting, while ultra-processed foods cause illness, disease, and early mortality. Artificial sweeteners, as their name implies, have nothing to do with whole, real food. Those things that contain artificial sweeteners are simply food-like edible substances –not food.

Perhaps what is most bothersome is that in spite of all of these studies and the evidence we have accumulated, the paradigm of “diet” products being better for us still permeates our society. There needs to be some government regulation; minimally, a warning label. The same as is needed for processed meats, like hot dogs and deli-level 1A carcinogens. The little bit of good news is that sales of diet products has been gradually decreasing.

You have heard this from me before, but I’ll say it again. Your health is in your hands. Stay educated and stick with a whole-foods, plant-predominant diet, with low oil, low sugar, and low salt and you can’t go wrong. Avoiding artificial sweeteners will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”

The writer is a health and wellness coach and personal trainer with over 25 years of professional experience. He is director of The Wellness Clinic, and can be reached at alan@alanfitness.com.