Artificial sweeteners are often the topic of heated debate.
On one hand, they’re claimed to increase your risk of cancer and harm your blood sugar and gut health.
On the other hand, most health authorities consider them safe, and many people use them to reduce their sugar intake and lose weight.
This article reviews the evidence on artificial sweeteners and their health effects.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, are chemicals added to some foods and beverages to make them taste sweet.
People often refer to them as “intense sweeteners” because they provide a taste similar to that of table sugar but up to several thousand times sweeter.
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals used to sweeten foods and beverages. They provide virtually zero calories.
How do artificial sweeteners work?
The surface of your tongue is covered by many taste buds, each containing several taste receptors that detect different flavors (
When you eat, your taste receptors encounter food molecules.
A perfect fit between a receptor and molecule sends a signal to your brain, allowing you to identify the taste (
For example, the sugar molecule fits perfectly into your taste receptor for sweetness, allowing your brain to identify the sweet taste.
Artificial sweetener molecules are similar enough to sugar molecules to fit on the sweetness receptor.
However, they are generally too different from sugar for your body to break them down into calories. This is how they provide a sweet taste without the added calories.
Only a minority of artificial sweeteners have a structure that your body can break down into calories. Given that only very small amounts of artificial sweeteners are needed to make foods taste sweet, you consume virtually no calories (1).
Artificial sweeteners taste sweet because they are recognized by the sweetness receptors on your tongue. They provide virtually zero calories, as your body can’t break them down.
Common artificial sweeteners
- Aspartame. Sold under the brand names NutraSweet, Equal, or Sugar Twin, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than table sugar.
- Acesulfame potassium. Also known as acesulfame K, it’s 200 times sweeter than table sugar. It’s suited for cooking and baking and sold under the brand names Sunnet or Sweet One.
- Advantame. This sweetener is 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar and suited for cooking and baking.
- Aspartame-acesulfame salt. Sold under the brand name Twinsweet, it’s 350 times sweeter than table sugar.
- Cyclamate. Cyclamate, which is 50 times sweeter than table sugar, was used for cooking and baking. However, it has been banned in the United States since 1970.
- Neotame. Sold under the brand name Newtame, this sweetener is 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar and suited for cooking and baking.
- Neohesperidin. It’s 340 times sweeter than table sugar and suited for cooking, baking, and mixing with acidic foods. Note that it is not approved for use in the United States.
- Sacchari. Sold under the brand names Sweet’N Low, Sweet Twin, or Necta Sweet, saccharin is 700 times sweeter than table sugar.
- Sucralose. Sucralose, which is 600 times sweeter table sugar, is suited for cooking, baking, and mixing with acidic foods. It’s sold under the brand name Splenda.
Many types of artificial sweeteners exist, but not all are approved for use in every country. The most common ones include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, neotame, and acesulfame potassium.
Artificial sweeteners, appetite, and weight
Artificial sweeteners are popular among individuals who are trying to lose weight.
However, their effects on appetite and weight vary among studies.
Effects on appetite
Some people believe that artificial sweeteners might increase appetite and promote weight gain (
The idea is that artificial sweeteners may be unable to activate the food reward pathway needed to make you feel satisfied after you eat (
Additionally, some scientists think you’d need to eat more of an artificially sweetened food, compared with the sugar-sweetened version, to feel full.
In fact, several studies have found that participants report less hunger and consume fewer calories when they replace sugary foods and beverages with artificially sweetened alternatives (
Recent studies have found that replacing sugary foods or drinks with artificially sweetened ones may reduce hunger and calorie intake.
Effects on weight
What’s more, choosing artificially sweetened foods instead of those with added sugar may reduce the number of daily calories you consume.
Artificially sweetened drinks can be an easy alternative for those who regularly consume soft drinks and want to decrease their sugar consumption.
However, opting for diet soda will not lead to any weight loss if you compensate by eating larger portions or extra sweets. If diet soda increases your cravings for sweets, sticking to water might be best (
Replacing sugar-containing foods and beverages with artificially sweetened ones may help you lose some weight.
Artificial sweeteners and diabetes
This may seem contradictory, but it’s important to note that all of the studies were observational. They didn’t prove that artificial sweeteners cause diabetes, only that people likely to develop type 2 diabetes also like to drink diet soda.
Thus far, only one small study in Hispanic women found a negative effect.
Women who drank an artificially sweetened drink before consuming a sugary drink had 14% higher blood sugar levels and 20% higher insulin levels, compared with those who drank water before consuming a sugary drink (
However, the participants weren’t used to drinking artificially sweetened drinks, which may partially explain the results. What’s more, artificial sweeteners may have different effects depending on people’s age or genetic background (
For example, research shows that replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with artificially sweetened ones produced stronger effects among Hispanic youth (
This could be related to the unexpected effect seen on Hispanic women above.
Although research results have not been unanimous, the current evidence is generally in favor of artificial sweetener use among those with diabetes. Still, more research is needed to evaluate their long-term effects in different populations.
Artificial sweeteners can help those with diabetes reduce their intake of added sugar. However, more research is needed on the effects of artificial sweeteners in various populations.
Artificial sweeteners and metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess belly fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
These conditions increase your risk of chronic disease, such as stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
One recent study had people with obesity and excess weight drink either a quarter gallon (1 liter) of regular soda, diet soda, water, or semi-skimmed milk each day.
By the end of the six-month study, those drinking the diet soda weighed 17–21% less, had 24–31% less belly fat, 32% lower cholesterol levels, and 10–15% lower blood pressure, compared with those drinking regular soda (
In fact, drinking water offered the same benefits as drinking diet soda (
Artificial sweeteners are unlikely to increase your risk of metabolic syndrome. Replacing sugary drinks with artificially sweetened ones might decrease your risk of several medical conditions.
Artificial sweeteners and gut health
Your gut bacteria play an important role in your health, and poor gut health is linked to numerous problems.
In one study, the artificial sweetener saccharin disrupted gut bacteria balance in four out of seven healthy participants who were not used to consuming them.
The four “responders” also showed poorer blood sugar control after as few as 5 days after consuming the artificial sweetener (
What’s more, when gut bacteria from these people were transferred into mice, the animals also developed poor blood sugar control (
On the other hand, the mice implanted with the gut bacteria from “non-responders” had no changes in their ability to control blood sugar levels (
Although interesting, more studies are needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Artificial sweeteners may disrupt the balance of gut bacteria in some people, which could increase the risk of disease. However, more studies are needed to confirm this effect.
Artificial sweeteners and cancer
Since the 1970s, debate about whether there is a link between artificial sweeteners and cancer risk has raged.
It was ignited when animal studies found an increased risk of bladder cancer in mice fed extremely high amounts of saccharin and cyclamate (
However, mice metabolize saccharin differently than humans.
One such study followed 9,000 participants for 13 years and analyzed their artificial sweetener intake. After accounting for other factors, the researchers found no link between artificial sweeteners and the risk of developing various types of cancer (
Furthermore, a recent review of studies published over an 11-year period did not find a link between cancer risk and artificial sweetener consumption (
One exception is cyclamate, which was banned for use in the United States after the original mouse-bladder-cancer study was published in 1970.
Since then, extensive studies in animals have failed to show a cancer link. However, cyclamate was never re-approved for use in the United States (1).
Based on the current evidence, artificial sweeteners are unlikely to increase the risk of cancer in humans.
Artificial sweeteners and dental health
Dental cavities — also known as caries or tooth decay — occur when the bacteria in your mouth ferment sugar. Acid is produced, which can damage tooth enamel.
Unlike sugars, artificial sweeteners do not react with the bacteria in your mouth. This means they do not form acids or cause tooth decay (
Research also shows that sucralose is less likely to cause tooth decay than sugar.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) states that all artificial sweeteners, when consumed in place of sugar, neutralize acid and help prevent tooth decay (28).
Artificial sweeteners, when consumed instead of sugar, decrease the likelihood of tooth decay.
Aspartame, headaches, depression, and seizures
Some artificial sweeteners may cause unpleasant symptoms, such as headaches, depression, and seizures in some individuals.
This individual variability may also apply to aspartame’s effects on depression.
For instance, people with mood disorders may be more likely to experience depressive symptoms in response to aspartame consumption (
Artificial sweeteners are unlikely to cause headaches, depression, or seizures. However, some individuals could be more sensitive to these effects than others.
Safety and side effects
Artificial sweeteners are generally considered safe for human consumption (1).
They are carefully tested and regulated by U.S. and international authorities to make sure they are safe to eat and drink.
That said, some people should avoid consuming them.
For example, individuals with the rare metabolic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, which is found in aspartame. Thus, those with PKU should avoid aspartame.
What’s more, some people are allergic to sulfonamides — the class of compounds to which saccharin belongs. For them, saccharin may lead to breathing difficulties, rashes, or diarrhea.
Artificial sweeteners are generally considered safe but should be avoided by people who have phenylketonuria or are allergic to sulfonamides.
The bottom line
Overall, the use of artificial sweeteners poses few risks and may even have benefits for weight loss, blood sugar control, and dental health.
These sweeteners are especially beneficial if you use them to decrease the amount of added sugar in your diet.
That said, the likelihood of negative effects can vary by individual and depend on the type of artificial sweetener consumed.
Some people may feel bad or experience negative effects after consuming artificial sweeteners, even though they are safe and well-tolerated by most people.
If you’d like to avoid artificial sweeteners, try using natural sweeteners instead.