The Chinese and the Greek used honey to sweeten their food. Later, saccharose or common sugar, obtained from sugarcane, began to be used. In 1879, Remsen and Fahlberg synthesized the first artificial sweetener, called saccharin. Due to its low cost of production and the shortage of common sugar during the World Wars, saccharin was readily accepted by the public. Since the 1950s, the use of artificial sweeteners was driven by calorie reduction rather than cost. Due to the bitter aftertaste of saccharin, another artificial sweetener, called cyclamate, was developed.
In 1970, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned cyclamate due to suspected carcinogenic ability in experimental animals. In 1981, aspartame was invented and began to be marketed as “NutraSweet.” Other sweeteners such as acesulfame-K, alitame, sucralose, and neotame, were developed. However, epidemiological studies in humans did not replicate the bladder cancer-causing effects found in rats. There is no scientific evidence that aspartame is carcinogenic.
The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have allowed the use of artificial sweeteners to battle obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and risk factors for heart disease. According to Dr. Christopher Gardner, Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, non-nutritive sweeteners reduce the number of added sugars in one’s diet and lower the number of calories eaten. This helps one maintain a healthy body weight and thus lower the risk of developing diabetes or heart disease.
However, there are several concerns about the consumption of artificial sweeteners. Individuals who add artificial sweeteners to their diet may still take in those lost calories through other foods. For instance, they may feel it is okay to eat cake, if they consume diet soda.
Dr. David Ludwig, Obesity and Weight-Loss Specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, explains that artificial sweeteners are much more potent than high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar. A tiny amount of artificial sweetener produces sweetness comparable to that of sugar. Over-stimulating the sugar receptors by frequently consuming them may make people find other less sweet foods, such as fruits and vegetables, unpalatable. Thus, people may avoid eating nutritious foods and eat low-nutrition, artificially-flavored foods.
These natural sugar substitutes may make individuals stop associating sweetness with calories. Thus, individuals may have more cravings for sweets and chose sweet food over nutritious food. This leads to weight gain. The San Antonio Heart Study reported that people who drank more than 21 diet drinks every week were twice as likely to gain weight as compared to those who did not.
According to animal studies, artificial sweeteners have been found to be addictive. Rats given a choice between intravenous cocaine and oral saccharine most often chose saccharine. The Multiethnic Study of Atherosclerosis showed that consuming diet drinks every day increased the risk for metabolic syndrome by 36% and type 2 diabetes by 67%. These are the diseases that sugar substitutes were supposed to lower the risk for in the first place.
Dr. Ludwig suggests that artificial sweeteners should be used temporarily to wean oneself off sugary drinks. Research has thrown up mixed findings about the health benefits of artificial sweeteners, thus people should proceed with caution and possibly take an expert’s opinion.
Weihrauch, M. R., & Diehl, V. (2004). Artificial sweeteners—do they bear a carcinogenic risk? Annals of Oncology, 15(10), 1460-1465.
Yang, Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 83(2), 101.
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/artificial-sweeteners/ (accessed on 2/9/2015)
http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/are-artificial-sweeteners-a-healthy-substitute-for-sugar-201112304047 (accessed on 2/9/2015)
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Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:
Ma, J., Bellon, M., Wishart, J. M., Young, R., Blackshaw, L. A., Jones, K. L., ... & Rayner, C. K. (2009). Effect of the artificial sweetener, sucralose, on gastric emptying and incretin hormone release in healthy subjects. American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 296(4), G735-G739.
Weihrauch, M. R., & Diehl, V. (2004). Artificial sweeteners—do they bear a carcinogenic risk?. Annals of Oncology, 15(10), 1460-1465.
Ma, J., Chang, J., Checklin, H. L., Young, R. L., Jones, K. L., Horowitz, M., & Rayner, C. K. (2010). Effect of the artificial sweetener, sucralose, on small intestinal glucose absorption in healthy human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(06), 803-806.
Benton, D. (2005). Can artificial sweeteners help control body weight and prevent obesity?. Nutrition Research Reviews, 18(01), 63-76.
Chattopadhyay, S., Raychaudhuri, U., & Chakraborty, R. (2014). Artificial sweeteners–a review. Journal of food science and technology, 51(4), 611-621.
Polyák, É., Gombos, K., Hajnal, B., Bonyár-Müller, K., Szabó, S., Gubicskó-Kisbenedek, A., ... & Ember, I. (2010). Effects of artificial sweeteners on body weight, food and drink intake. Acta Physiologica Hungarica, 97(4), 401-407.
Lean, M. E., & Hankey, C. R. (2004). Aspartame and its effects on health.
Ludwig, D. S. (2009). Artificially sweetened beverages: cause for concern. Jama, 302(22), 2477-2478.