Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial Sweeteners 101

Artificial sweeteners may seem harmless… they are easily found in countless packaged foods and drinks and have zero calories. Did you know, a food package labeled “No Artificial Flavors” can still contain artificial sweeteners?! 

You’ve probably had plenty of foods with artificial sweeteners hidden on the ingredients list and haven’t even realized it. 

When you consume artificial sweeteners on a regular basis, you might experience anything from constant digestive upset to daily headaches.
 
Consider this blog post your “101 lesson” in artificial sweeteners. If you have never stopped to think about how those “too good to be true” little pink packets at restaurants affect your body, read on! 

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How Artificial Sweeteners Affect the Body

Artificial sweeteners are additives to food and drinks that make them taste sweet, without adding to the sugar or calorie content. From diet soda to protein bars, you can find these sweeteners in just about anything labeled as “sugar-free”, “diet” or even “low carb”. 
 
If you consume these only rarely, you might not notice much of a difference. However, for people who consume products with artificial sweeteners regularly, they might notice some of the following changes.
 

Your Sense of Taste May Be Dulled 

Have you noticed that your taste buds have changed, or the intensity of flavors has dulled over time? This might actually be the result of an over consumption of artificial sweeteners. Some of this is due to the fact that many of these sweeteners are many times sweeter than naturally occurring sweeteners. 
 
You begin accustomed to the sweeter taste of artificial, processed sweeteners, and over time, start losing the desire for naturally occurring sugars. There is good news! Reducing the amount of artificial sweeteners in your diet, and adding natural sources of sweeteners, your normal tastes will return.
 
This doesn’t mean you should never touch aspartame again, but start incorporating more sugar or stevia into your diet, and cut back on the sugar-free and diet options.
 

It Can Boost Craving Intensity 

One of the most dangerous effects caused by sweeteners is that they have the ability to stimulate pleasure centers in your brain. Under normal circumstances, these pleasure centers eventually reach a point where they become sainted and you stop eating or drinking, but with the presence of artificial sweeteners, satisfaction is often delayed or completely prevented altogether. The end result is almost always intense cravings that cause people to overindulge in foods and drinks, and that is contrary to what they had been trying to achieve the entire time.  
 
 

Gut, Mood, Immune and Skin Problems May Be in the Future 

Some studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can also have negative effects on your gut health. For example, even though sweeteners are considered safe, you might develop a glucose intolerance form the sweeteners. The chemicals in artificial sweeteners are toxic to our microflora (the good probiotics that we all co-exist with) colony, allowing the bad bugs to multiply and infect us.  They can also add to digestive distress like stomach cramps, nausea, loose stools, bloating, and other issues with your digestive system. When your digestive system isn’t working properly, your body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs to make the neurotransmitters needed by our brain to perform basic daily tasks and maintain a stable mood. 
 
 

Signs to Cut Back on Artificial Sweeteners

While there is nothing wrong with having artificial sweeteners occasionally and in small doses, if you have too much, too frequently, there can be some detrimental effects. Sweeteners affect everyone differently, but if you have any of the following ailments, it might be time to determine whether or not your artificial sweetener consumption is to blame.
 

You Start Having Digestive Issues 

One of the most common complaints that have been mentioned by consumers is that they are having upset stomachs and some intestinal distress. That can be extremely inconvenient if you need to get to a high-pressure job where your livelihood depends on your focus. Researchers have found many links to gut health and artificial sweeteners.
 
Symptoms of gut distress:
Gas and bloating
Abdominal cramping
Constipation or diarrhea
Nausea and general stomach aches
Uneasy feeling in the gut
 
It may take some time figuring out that the effects you are experiencing in your gut is actually from the artificial sweeteners. This requires keeping a food diary so you can track what symptoms you have, and what you consumed before experiencing them. If you notice a trend where you feel this way after diet or sugar free foods and drinks, you may have found your culprit. 
 

You Begin to Gain or Lose weight Suddenly

Changes in gut flora shouldn’t be ignored, and it turns out that the microflora living inside humans can have a major impact on health and even cognitive functions. Changes in gut flora can influence mood, and trigger depressive episodes that are difficult to handle for some people. 
 
When gut flora can’t properly carry out their functions, the body might go into a mode where it can only store energy as fats. That leads to sudden weight gain, and much of it has to do with the signals being sent to your brain and body. 
 
On the other hand, some people notice the opposite, where they start losing weight, either from the loss of cravings, or from other health issues as a result of the artificial sweeteners. Losing or gaining weight unexpectedly and without an obvious reason is a good sign that you might need to consider your diet and get help from a doctor.
 

You Feel Off for Unknown Reasons

There are a wide range of negative effects reported by people who consume large amounts of artificial sweeteners. In some cases, you just feel off – you might be a little gassy or bloated, have a constant headache, experience low energy, have blood sugar issues, poor sleep, or have issues with your heart health. 
 
Any changes in your overall health should be discussed with your doctor, and don’t forget to tell them about your diet, particularly if it involves artificial sweeteners.
 

Artificial Sweeteners to Avoid

Ideally, we should be striving to remove all chemicals from our foods, but the artificial sweeteners in the following list should be a priority to avoid. Some people experience side effects when they consume certain types of artificial sweeteners, especially frequently or in large quantities.
 
Here are some of the artificial sweeteners you might want to avoid if you are interested in reducing or preventing these side effects.
 

Aspartame

Aspartame is currently one of the most popular and well-known artificial sweeteners on the market. Even though there are been a number of studies that show the sweeteners in an unfavorable light, the FDA has continued to allow it as an additive. It currently controls one of the largest portions of the sweetener market share as well. According to various researchers who have looked thoroughly into the effects of aspartame, there have been documented cases of people experiencing seizures, headaches, nausea, depression, and heart palpitations. A large portion of the complaints from consumers to the FDA has been revealed to be about Aspartame. 
 

Saccharin

Saccharin is a unique artificial sweetener in that it was once banned by the FDA due to associations with various cancers. Due to conflicting studies and a lot of political run-around, Saccharin has been re-approved. Studies have been continued in recent years as consumers report negative experiences. Doctors conclude that while they can’t be sure that saccharin is actually what is causing the issues, it should still be considered because of how widely it is used while still being a relatively unknown substance.
 

Sucralose

This sweetener is just as ubiquitous as the first two. The most common complaints about sucralose is that they cause digestive distress, abdominal bloating and cramping, and general gut health issues. Sucralose is just as likely to trigger inflammation, headaches, and brain fog as any of the other artificial sweeteners. 
 

Acesulfame Potassium

Acesulfame Potassium is an artificial sweetener that has a powerfully sweet flavor. The main drawback of this sweetener is that it has a strong aftertaste that is usually described as bitter, so many formulas that include the use of acesulfame potassium end up using another sweetener to cover for that taste. In other words, this sweetener can hide lower in the ingredients list because it is used as a “booster” to other sweeteners in a formula. 

Natural Alternatives to Artificial Sweeteners

When looking for a lower-sugar version of your favorite sweet treats and drinks, you have likely run into the sugar-free varieties made with common artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose.  Luckily, there are some safer, more natural sweeteners that don’t affect your body like real sugar but also won’t come with the side effects that the artificial sweeteners cause.
 

Stevia 

Stevia is one of the most popular natural sweeteners on the market. While often labeled as an artificial sweetener, it is NOT. Stevia actually comes from the stevia plant, which has a sweet taste without the blood sugar spike that happens of other natural sugars. Technically speaking, stevia is a type of herbal supplement and is considered a non-nutritive sweetener. It can mimic sugar in many foods and drinks, and is being found more and more in diet-friendly and sugar-free varieties of foods.
 

Xylitol 

This sweetener is a sugar alcohol that is found in products like toothpaste, gum, deodorants, and even your children’s medicine. Sugar alcohols technically don’t have any calories that our body can use for energy, but sugar alcohols DO appear on food labels underneath the sugar content. Eating foods with Xylitol here and there (most commonly sugar-free candies and gum) won’t bother most people. You wouldn’t want to substitute Xylitol cup-for-cup in baking or recipes because it can cause a temporary laxative effect and stomach upset when consumed in larger amounts. 
 

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is a natural, plant-based sweetener that can be considered healthier than sugar, with some added health benefits. The sugars from the Agave plant are still sugar and still contains carbs and calories. It is most commonly used as a simple swap for table sugar, honey, or maple syrup. It provides a lot of sweetness while providing some nutritional benefits. Typical white, processed cane sugar is typically covered in pesticides, so for those looking for a “cleaner” option, but don’t need a zero-calorie sweetener, Agave is a great choice! Coconut sugar is a good runner-up option as well! 
 

Monk Fruit

One of the newest natural sweeteners to hit the market is perhaps one of the most popular. If you have not heard of monk fruit yet, you likely will soon. This sweetener has no weird aftertaste like stevia and Xylitol sometimes can but it has all the benefits of other sweeteners. It is extracted from the monk fruit, which has a sweetness very similar to sugar, so it’s considered a plant-based sweetener like agave nectar and stevia. 

What to Prioritize?

As a fitness coach that promotes overall wellness and longevity, I recommend removing artificial sweeteners wherever possible! But I also find the most success when I keep things simple… If you have a go-to drink like diet soda, Sparkling ICE, or Crystal Light, try cutting down your consumption by half. Habits can be hard to break, and the addictive nature of artificial sweeteners make it even harder! 

Prioritize healthy swaps for any food or drink that you have more than twice per week. These swaps will make the biggest bang for your buck. You can still have your favorite on occasion, that way you won’t feel guilty on your monthly movie theater date when you order a diet coke. You don’t have to feel deprived while your are in the process of improving your habits. Eventually minimizing artificial sweeteners won’t feel like a “deprivation” because you will be feeling much healthier without them!  

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