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Artificial Sweeteners

Dr L. W. McDaniel and Jamie Welter ask the following questions related to artificial sweeteners.

  • Can sweeteners prevent weight loss?
  • May the use of artificial sweeteners produce possible side effects?
  • What are some of the differences between artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners provide lower caloric intake than sugar in various foods and fluids. However, there has been controversy surrounding these too-good-to-be-true sweeteners. "The idea of a genuinely toothsome sensation that isn't "paid for" in calories and weight gain seems too much like the proverbial free lunch" (Szalavitz 2006)[9]. Artificial sweeteners have been found to increase body weight compared to high-sucrose foods. The rationale behind this observation was that sweeteners might increase cravings for foods that contain real sugar. Questions have been raised about how artificial sweeteners affect the brain to produce the association between sweetness and the urge to increase cravings for sweet calories. Other research trials have shown that diets with artificial sweeteners may assist subjects in losing weight. (Szalavitz 2006)[9]

Can artificial sweeteners prevent weight loss?

Obesity has continued to rise in the age of artificial sweeteners; some studies found short-term increases in sugar craving to sweeteners, while others found no connection. People who use artificial sweeteners tend to be heavier than those who do not renounce sugar, but this may occur because of the higher number of overweight people who consume sugar substitutes to control their weight. Usually, the brain identifies sweetness with calories, which is not achieved with artificial sweeteners. For example, when a group of rats drank artificially sweetened fluid, the rats began to miss the sweetness calorie connection. The rats consumed more of a sugary and fattening snack than those rats who had been enjoying sweet, high-calorie drinks. Research suggests that artificial sweeteners may cause the same effect on people. However, that possibility has not been strongly supported.

A study consisted of overweight people who drank beverages sweetened with sugar and the second group of overweight people who drank beverages with a sugar substitute. Both groups consumed the same quantity of liquid. Those who drank the sugar liquid gained 3.5 pounds versus a two-pound weight loss for those who drank the artificially sweetened beverages. Sweeteners may not cause the same results because sugar substitutes tend to be consumed by ingesting low or no-calorie drinks accompanied by high-calorie meals. This combination may satisfy the sugar calorie connection in their brains.

David Levitsky added, "Unquestionably, artificial sweeteners work. In experimental studies, when calories were measured by what people ate with and without sweeteners, total caloric intake goes down with sweeteners" (Szalavitz 2006)[9]. But Levitsky cautioned that sweeteners need to be substituted for higher-calorie foods and drinks to make a difference instead of adding them to the calories consumed. If appropriately used, sweeteners may be helpful in weight management. Research has included two overweight groups that agreed to supplement their meals with sucrose or artificial sweeteners for ten weeks. Those with sucrose gained 1.5 kg; those who consumed artificial sweeteners lost 1.0 kg. These findings contradicted the idea that the consumption of artificial sweeteners leads to over-consumption of carbohydrate foods, leading to weight gain. Additional studies with similar results have been published. (Szalavitz 2006)[9]

May the use of artificial sweeteners produce possible side effects?

Regarding the safety aspects of the consumption of artificial sweeteners, aspartame was found to be a multipotent carcinogenic agent when fed to rats. These studies confirmed that aspartame was a carcinogenic agent. Researchers demonstrated that carcinogenic effects are increased when there is life-span exposure to aspartame beginning during fetal life.

A case study on aspartame found that it can trigger migraine headaches. The study found that the acute agent containing aspartame worsened rather than relieved their migraines in two patients - another case study by Dr's. Bigal and Krymchantowski found that Splenda, containing sucralose, may induce migraines. (Bigal et al. 2007)[1]

The list of artificial sweeteners to be avoided consisted of Sucralose, Acesulfame-K, Aspartame, Alitame, and Cyclamate. Two sweeteners that are the most used and popular were Sucralose and Aspartame. Sucralose is known as SPLENDA. SPLENDA has been acknowledged for its inability to be metabolized by the body. Since it is not digested, Splenda does not increase calories, raise blood sugar, or leave an aftertaste. Testing of sucralose has revealed organ, genetic, and reproductive damage. Other side effects may entail shrinkage of the thymus gland, swelling of the liver and kidneys, and initiating kidney calcification. Still, the FDA determined that it does not increase cancer risk in humans. (Bigal et al. 2007[1], Hirsch 2007[2], Hull 2005[3], Newman et al. 2001[4] and Rebhahn 2001[5])

Aspartame, known as NutraSweet and Equal, is intensely sweet and is digested like protein. Still, the calories are negligible since only a small amount is needed due to its intensely sweet taste. Aspartame has no aftertaste. Aspartame has been identified as a dangerous chemical food additive. The use of this sweetener during pregnancy and by children has been contraindicated. Methanol, part of aspartame's blueprint, is a known carcinogen that causes retinal damage in the eye, interferes with DNA replication, and causes congenital disabilities. One of the deadliest reactions to aspartame is by phenylketonurics (PKU). Toxic levels of this substance (PKU) in the bloodstream may result in mental retardation. Scientists believe aspartame alters brain function and prompts behaviour changes in humans. The over-consumption of PKU in one's diet may cause seizures, elevated blood plasma, and adverse effects during pregnancy, increased PMS symptoms, insomnia, and severe mood swings. (Hull 2005)[3]

What are some of the differences between varieties of artificial sweeteners?

Many people assume that all artificial sweeteners are similar and have the same properties. A section of this study was prepared to discuss those differences. Not all artificial sweeteners are produced using the same ingredients. Some sweeteners are composed of a mixture of unnatural chemicals that the body has difficulty processing. These chemicals accumulate in vital organs, pollute the bloodstream, or cause mutations in human cells. One method to determine which sugar packet may be safely consumed is to look at the colour of the paper container. When shopping, think of Splenda, the yellow packet, as a caution. The blue packet, Equal, makes you feel blue. Sweet'N'Low®, or generic saccharin, the pink packet: you are in the pink! Sweet'N'Low® has been the most recommended sweetener for human use. (Rubin 2003)[6]. Alternatives to consider include safe, natural sweeteners such as stevia, honey, sorghum, barley malt, and molasses


Studies were uncertain as to whether artificial sweeteners were contributors to weight gain. However, research findings have indicated that diet drinks may cause some individuals to overeat. Water has been an excellent substitute for sweetened or artificial sweeteners. When deciding which sweeteners to be consumed, use Sweet'N'Low®, or generic saccharin. Avoid or reduce the consumption of Aspartame, Nutra-Sweet, and Equal.

Health and safety studies indicate that it is vital to pay attention to the number of artificial sweeteners an individual consumes in their diet daily. An additional consideration would be the potential for the development of migraine headaches or cancer in years to come. Be cautious of the effects that these substances may have on your body.

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) published a comprehensive report on sugar and artificial sweeteners, affirming that artificial sweeteners are safe when used in the amounts specified by the FDA. One does not have to eliminate artificial sweeteners from your diet, but it is essential to be cautious when using sweeteners. These products should be used in moderation. (Hull 2005[3] and Newman et al. 2001[4])

Sweet choices

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved five low-calorie sweeteners for use in various foods. The FDA has established an "acceptable daily intake" (ADI) for each sweetener. This is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over a lifetime. ADIs are intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns.

Artificial sweetener ADI* Estimated ADI equivalent** OK for Cooking?
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) 50 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg of body weight) 18 to 19 cans of diet cola
Saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin) 5 mg per kg 9 to 12 packets of sweetener
Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One) 15 mg per kg 30 to 32 cans of diet lemon-lime soda***
Sucralose (Splenda) 5 mg per kg 6 cans of diet cola***
Neotame 18 mg per day No consumer products available yet in the USA

*FDA-established acceptable daily intake (ADI) limit per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight
**Product-consumption equivalent for a 150-pound person
***These products usually contain more than one type of sweetener


  1. BIGAL, M.E. and KRYMCHANTOWSKI, A.V. (2007) Should You Sour on Aspartame? Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, 25 (7), p. 4-5.
  2. HIRSCH, A. R. (2007) Migraine Triggered by Sucralose - A Case Report. Headache: The Journal of Head & Face Pain, 47 (3), p. 447.
  3. HULL, J. (2005) The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners. Total Health, 27 (1), p. 30-32.
  4. NEWMAN, L. C. and LIPTON, R. B. (2001) Migraine MLT-Down: An Unusual Presentation of Migraine in Patients With Aspartame-Triggered Headaches. The Journal of Head & Face Pain, 41 (9), p. 899-901.
  5. REBHAHN, P. (2001) Dangerous Diet Drinks. Psychology Today, 34 (2), p. 20-25.
  6. RUBIN, K. (2003) Where We Stand Today: Artificial Sweeteners. FoodService Director, 16 (5), p. 48.
  7. SOFFRITTI, M. et al. (2007) Life-Span Exposure to Low Doses of Aspartame Beginning during Prenatal Life Increases Cancer Effects in Rats. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115 (9), p. 1293-1297.
  8. St-ONGE, M. and HEYMSFIELD, S.B. (2003) Usefulness of Artificial Sweeteners for Body Weight Control. Nutrition Reviews, 61 (6), p. 219-221.
  9. SZALAVITZ, M. (2006) The Sweetener Standoff. Psychology Today, 39 (5), p. 60.

Page Reference

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  • McDANIEL, L. and WELTER, J. (2008) Artificial Sweeteners [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Authors

Dr Larry McDaniel is an associate professor and advisor for the Exercise Science program at Dakota State University, Madison SD USA. He is a former All - American in football and Hall of Fame athlete & coach. Jamie Welter is a student in Exercise Science at Dakota State University.