It's no secret that the obesity epidemic is on the rise, growing faster in the last 10 years than ever before. And, while there are numerous factors contributing to the issue, one of the biggest is consumer messaging and branding. Processed foods are so often touted as better and healthier options, but are usually worse for your health, offering convenience in place of nutrition. Zero-calorie sweeteners are not only a prime example, but are one of the worst offenders when it coes to twisted consumer branding. They're often thought to aid in weight loss and claim to "support a healthier lifestyle," but just how accurate are these claims?
Let's look at a few specific examples so we can better understand the history of artificial sweeteners.
Saccharin was one of the first artificial sweeteners on the market and was used to help diabetics control blood sugar levels. It is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and was “generally recognized as safe” in 1958 by the FDA. As this compound was studied, it was found to cause bladder cancer in rodents, although the same effect was not observed in human studies. Saccharin is still used in many products on the shelf today.
Aspartame has been on the market for over 20 years and continues to be used in zero-calorie and low-calorie processed foods. The sweet flavor of aspartame may not provide a caloric value, but the sweet taste triggers the brain to produce hormones as if it were eating something sweet. Even the perception of a sweeter flavor can alter hormone levels, leading to weight gain and an inability to control appetite. The zero-calorie promise is not as appealing when you look at the impact it has on physiological processes in the body.
Splenda is made up primarily of sucralose, which was thought to pass through the GI tract unabsorbed, however, more recent research has found small amounts get absorbed in the GI tract. These small amounts can harm beneficial bacteria residing in the gut. Decreasing beneficial bacteria in the gut can lead to decreased immune function, poor digestion and possible hormone imbalance. Additionally, heating Splenda causes chemical reactions that produce cancer-causing dioxins, which are released into the body.
Even though sacrificing caloric intake can be appealing, the long term impact of using artificial sweeteners can be detrimental to overall health. Increased sugar cravings, increased stored fat and hormone imbalance all lead to weight gain and are side effects of artificial sweeteners. So, ditch the artificial sweeteners and try natural sources of sweetness like honey, unprocessed stevia and raw cane juice. Incorporating sweeteners that have a caloric value may actually lead to lower calorie intake over the course of the day and increased satiation.