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Health Facts on Sugary Soda: The Truth about Artificial Sweeteners
Opinions regarding the use of artificial sweeteners are divided: there are those who are concerned about artificial sweeteners’ undiscovered health problems and those who heavily rely on them. Even scientists and researchers are divided on the topic. Regardless of where you stand, artificial sweeteners are a $1.5 billion industry with no signs of slowing down in the near future.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. By synthetic, we mean that artificial sweeteners are man-made in a lab—they do not occur naturally in nature.
Because they can be used in such small amounts to attain the same sweetness one would expect with regular sugar, and because they are not metabolized by the body, artificial sweeteners have virtually no calories and typically do not raise blood sugars.
Due to the reduced costs to produce, having little to no calories, and potential health benefits for weight reduction, artificial sweeteners are an attractive alternative to sugar.
How do artificial sweeteners work?
Your tongue is covered by taste buds, each of which contains several taste receptors that distinguish different flavors. When you eat or drink, your tastebuds encounter food molecules and send a signal to your brain to identify the taste. Artificial sweetener molecules are similar enough to sugar molecules, and therefore, fit on the sweetness receptor. However, artificial sugars are too different from sugar for your body to break the artificial sugars down into calories.
The Most Common Sweeteners in Soda
While they can be in regular soda, artificial sweeteners are most common and found in higher quantities in diet or sugar-free soda.
Aspartame and Sucralose are the two most common artificial sweeteners in soda.
Aspartame in Sodas
Most zero-calorie sodas are made with aspartame, which also is recognized by the names NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin, and AminoSweet.
Aspartame is an artificial chemical composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, with a methyl ester. When consumed, the methyl ester divides into methanol, which may be transformed into formaldehyde. Aspartame was first discovered in 1965 when chemist James Schlatter was working on a drug to treat stomach ulcers. While in the lab, he licked his fingers to turn his notebook’s page, and discovered the artificial sweetener.
After Schlatter’s discovery, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved the chemical sweetener in 1974; however, both FDA and independent scientists have had concerns about implied health consequences and deficiencies in the science presented to the FDA by the aspartame's manufacturer, G.D. Searle.
In 1987, UPI, United Press International, shared a series of investigative articles written by reporter Gregory Gordon, highlighting the health concerns associated with aspartame consumption. In the series, Gordon shared studies associating aspartame to health problems and revealed the insufficient quality of industry-funded research that led to aspartame's approval.
Needless to say, aspartame’s approval was and still is controversial. However, the FDA isn’t the only agency that approves of aspartame; agencies in Europe, Canada, and various other countries also approve of the chemical sweetener. Moreover, agencies like the World Health Organization, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, American Heart Association and American Dietetic Association all endorse it.
However, aspartame is a known excitotoxin. Meaning, ingesting too much aspartame can stimulate overexcited neurons to their cellular death. This is particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems or young children who have not fully developed their blood-brain barriers. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists aspartame as "a chemical with substantial evidence of developmental neurotoxicity."
In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reviewed many studies evaluating the effects of aspartame. They concluded that aspartame was safe for daily intake but set an acceptable daily limit of 40 milligrams (mg) per kilogram of body weight. Ironically, the EFSA's ADI for aspartame is 10 mg lower than the FDA's amount considered safe. Regardless, both amounts are far more than most people consume in a day. A can of diet soda contains 190 mg of aspartame. Therefore, a person would have to drink more than 19 cans of soda to reach the limit.
Despite the daily limit, researchers have found that aspartame induces toxicity at various levels. Experimental studies confirm that aspartame is a multipotential carcinogenic agent that may raise the prospect of lymphoma, leukemia, urinary tract tumors, and neurological tumors, even at a daily dose less than the acceptable daily dose, although more data is needed Moreover, aspartame is known to have over ninety-two known side effects that have been reported to the FDA, including headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, memory loss, vision changes, rashes, insomnia, hives, menstrual changes, and seizures.
Aspartame may also be associated with tumors. Because aspartame has limited stability in liquid, research has found that over time, the additive breaks down into formaldehyde and DKP (diketopiperazine), a brain tumor agent. The breakdown of aspartame happens regardless of the product containing it is placed in the refrigerator. However, the deterioration accelerates when left at room temperature.
Sucralose in Soda
If your soda isn't sweetened with aspartame, there's a good chance that it is sweetened by sucralose. Sucralose, also known by the brand name "Splenda," is created by chlorinating sugar in the lab. While the creation is ridiculously sweet, it has no calories. The Center for Science in the Public Interest minimized their rating of sucralose from "caution" to "avoid" after a study connected the sweetener to leukemia and other blood cancers in male mice in 2016.
Artificial Sweeteners in Soda: Possible Negative Health Effects
Artificial sweeteners are most commonly used to reduce the amount of added sugar and calories in foods and beverages. Diet soda is a popular example of this. Artificially sweetened diet sodas contain 0 calories and 0 sugar whereas a regular soda can contain 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar. In theory, consuming products made with artificial sweeteners can provide health benefits by reducing calories and sugar—for example, promoting weight loss or other metabolic issues related to high sugar intake.
It is crucial to note, however, that no studies confirm that diet soda consumption lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and stroke.
On the contrary, some research suggests that consuming beverages made with artificial sweeteners is actually correlated with increased risk for the same health outcomes that have been linked to sugar-sweetened beverages, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and stroke.(reference) However, the data does not explain or demonstrate the cause and correlation between these adverse effects and artificial soda.
Below, we outlined some of the negative health effects and some of the science that supports the negative effects of artificial sweeteners.
Artificial Sweeteners: Weight Gain
Designed to save calories and prevent weight gain, artificial sweeteners might not be so sweet after all. However, the science is contradictory on artificial sweeteners and their effects on health and body weight. Recent studies on sweeteners reveal that fake sweeteners do not help us lose weight or consume fewer unhealthy foods. Instead, they do the opposite: these sweeteners might actually increase our cravings for the very substances the sweetener is supposed to replace.
Sugar-sweetened foods start the release of brain chemicals and hormones that are known as the food reward pathway. This food reward is crucial to feeling full and satiated after a meal and involves many of the same brain circuits as addictive behaviors. Although artificial sweeteners provide a sweet taste, researchers believe that the lack of calories prevents complete activation of the food reward system. Researchers speculate this is why artificial sweeteners are linked to increased appetite and cravings for sugary foods.
In 2008, epidemiologists at the University of Texas Health Science Center followed more than 5,000 residents of San Antonia for nine years. They discovered there was a relationship between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. In their paper, scientists argued that artificial sweeteners were fueling, not fighting, our obesity epidemic.
In another study conducted by Susan Swithers and Terry Davidson at the Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue University, scientists fed rats yogurt sweetened with either sugar or a zero-calorie sweetener. When not consuming yogurt, the rats were given a standard rat pellet diet. The rats fed the fake sweetener consumed more calories and gained more weight than the rats fed with regular sugar.
These studies are just a few examples of many studies that have been conducted pointing to fake sugars not being the miracle products we are made to believe they are. The truth is evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners disrupt your system making it harder for you to regulate your appetite. However, there are studies that have been conducted that draw the conclusion that appetite and calorie intake are not affected by artificial sweeteners.
Artificial Sweeteners: Type 2 Diabetes
Because artificial sweeteners offer a sweet taste without a rise in blood sugar levels, those with diabetes often turn to beverages with artificial sweeteners. However, some studies reveal that drinking diet soda might be associated with developing diabetes.
For example, in a small study conducted on 2,037 factory employees in Japan, researchers studied the connection between sugar-sweetened beverages and diet soda consumption and type 2 diabetes in Japanese men. Researchers concluded that diet soda consumption was associated with an increased risk for diabetes.
However, this study, as well as many studies on the correlation between diet soda and increased diabetes, was an observational study. Therefore, they did not prove that the sweeteners were the cause of diabetes but did prove that people likely to develop type 2 diabetes also like to drink diet soda. Regardless, the study does illuminate that diet drinks do not lower the chances of diabetes and more studies are necessary to truly understand the correlation between diet soda and diabetes.
Artificial Sweeteners: Cardiovascular Disease
Many studies in adults have looked at the correlation between artificial sweeteners and the risk of chronic disease, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome (which heightens the potential for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases).
Some studies suggest diet soda drinkers have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, which ultimately can lead to cardiovascular disease. To examine the correlation between diet soda intake and long-term waist circumference change, the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging looked at 749 Mexican‐American and European‐American individuals aged 65 and older. Their study concluded that increasing diet soda intake was correlated with escalating abdominal obesity, a likely pathway for cardiometabolic risk in this aging population.
Artificial Sweeteners: Hypertension
Researchers assessed the correlation between consumption of sugar and artificially sweetened soda and hypertension. A series of eight different studies discovered that statistically, there is a strong association between sugar and artificially sweetened soda consumption and hypertension.
Artificial Sweeteners: Stroke
Researchers evaluated the correlation between high consumption of sweetened beverages, sugar and artificial sweeteners, and increased risk of stroke. They concluded that consuming sweetened beverages is associated with an increased risk of stroke and believe the finding warrants confirmation by more extensive studies.
Artificial Sweeteners and Soda Take Away
Although more research is needed, the available studies do raise the question of whether artificial sweeteners should be avoided in order to support our overall health.
If you do need something sweet, choosing options that contain natural ingredients like stevia leaf may be a better alternative to tackle your sweet tooth. OLIPOP contains no artificial sweeteners (or artificial anything!) and it only contains natural flavors, allowing you to get that satisfying taste without putting your body at risk.
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- Mike Adams, Food Forensics: The Hidden Toxins Lurking in Your Food and How You Can Avoid Them for Lifelong Health (BenBella Books, Inc., 2016).
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- Artificial sweeteners are a synthetic sugar substitute that is far sweeter than sugar and typically do not raise blood sugars nor do they contribute significant calories.
- Artificial sweeteners are correlated with a handful of adverse and serious side effects.