Is it safe to consume artificial sweeteners?

By Hannah Buckland, Healthy Hearts Care Planner

Understanding what goes into the food we consume is a key element of why our cook and eat courses are so successful in helping people cook healthier meals regularly and make long lasting positive changes to their lifestyle. Start your application here and begin your new healthy lifestyle journey.

With that being said, let’s take a dive into the world of artificial sweeteners.

You’ve probably seen a lot of headlines in the media about artificial sweeteners over the years; claims that they interfere with hunger signals, cause weight gain, and increase the risk of diseases such as cancer and diabetes – to name just a few! Yet they are widely used in products such as diet soft drinks, sugar-free foods, and low-calorie alternatives – marketed as the “healthier” option. Understandably, this has caused a lot of confusion about the health and safety of sweeteners. We’ve taken a look at the evidence to help you understand a bit more about them.

Artificial sweeteners are sweet-tasting low-calorie or calorie-free chemical substances used instead of sugar to sweeten foods and drinks. In Europe, all sweeteners undergo rigorous scrutiny and are only licensed if they pass safety approval tests set by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). As part of the evaluation process, the EFSA sets an acceptable daily intake (ADI); this is the maximum amount considered safe to consume every day over a lifetime. As an example, to reach the ADI of aspartame, an adult would need to consume 14 cans of a sugar-free drink every day over their lifetime (assuming that aspartame was used in the drink at the maximum permitted level). Indeed, with all sweeteners, despite the potential for toxicity, they are used in such small concentrations in foods and drinks that it would be incredibly difficult to reach the toxicity threshold.

So, we can be fairly confident that artificial sweeteners are safe, but what about their impact on your health? The truth is, a lot the evidence is contradictory and in many cases further research is required before firm conclusions can be drawn. Below are some of the key concerns and where we are now in terms of the latest evidence.

  • There are concerns that artificial sweeteners can interfere with hunger signals. However, a systematic review found that people given foods or drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners tended to eat fewer calories compared to those given foods or drinks containing sugar.
  • Several studies have observed a relationship between diet drinks and weight gain. However, researchers have highlighted that it is not necessarily the consumption of artificial sweeteners that cause weight gain; rather, those with a higher body weight are more likely to be drinking sugar-free drinks.
  • Research into whether artificial sweeteners change the way our body handles sugar (potentially increasing the risk of diabetes) has produced contradictory results.
  • Concerns about the potential carcinogenic effects of artificial sweeteners arose from animal toxicology studies in the 1970s. Following further research, Cancer Research UK has stated that sweeteners do not cause cancer.

 

Despite concerns, there are some clear benefits to consuming artificial sweeteners. Low-calorie sweeteners cause a lower rise in blood sugar levels after a meal if consumed instead of sugars. They also cause less damage to your teeth. Swapping sugary drinks or foods for diet versions can also help to reduce the number of calories you consume which, over time, could help you to lose weight. However, it is important to remember that there is no silver bullet when it comes to weight loss; it is more useful to focus on your lifestyle as a whole. This includes consuming a healthy balanced diet, being physically active and getting plenty of sleep, amongst other factors.

In conclusion, the general consensus from UK health organisations is that artificial sweeteners are considered safe if consumed within safe limits, and that most people can consume them as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

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