There has been a wide variety of conflicting information about low calorie sweeteners and diet drinks throughout the years. Some say these “diet” options are healthier for you, while others claim they have potential risks and can create additional health problems, such as increasing your risk for cancer or diabetes. What’s true? Are low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose better, or worse for you? Let’s break down various claims and assumptions about low-cal sweeteners and see what’s true, and what needs more evidence.
When people try to lose weight, they often turn to “diet” beverages instead of classic sugary soda. Nowadays, there seems to be a diet option for nearly every drink: Diet Coke, Diet Dr. Pepper, Sprite Zero, and much more. Simply searching the term “diet soda” into Google brings conflicting results: some articles claiming that diet soda has zero effect on your weight, while others swear that those who drink diet sodas gain more weight than those who choose regular. Those who claim that low calorie sweeteners cause weight gain reference studies where fake sweeteners seemed to trigger the brain in a way to prepare its body to prep for further calories, leading to higher craving levels and seeking more calories than those who do not drink diet sodas. However, these findings have been debunked. In fact, long-term findings have actually shown that diet drinks cause less weight gain over time compared to others who classic sugary drinks. Overall, it’s recommended to drink healthier alternatives such as water or unsweetened tea if you truly want to lose weight.
Another health concern from low-calorie sweeteners includes increasing your risk of cancer. Through various studies and experiments with different kinds of low-cal sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose, results have shown that carcinogenic properties and increased risk are more prevalent in some sweeteners over others. Aspartame has shown to include the highest amount of risk for cancer if consumed in large quantities out of the low-cal sugars throughout time, with sucralose as a close second. The specific cancers aspartame has resulted to increase in risk most often in studies were lymphoma and leukemia. Since cancers can take decades to develop, further long-term studies need to be conducted in order to come to more conclusive results, but studies do show that men who drink at least one diet soda a day have higher risks for developing cancers such as multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Men are at higher risk over women because men already include a higher enzyme count that converts methanol into formaldehyde. Aspartame and other low-cal sweeteners add to this enzyme to create higher carcinogenics levels in their bodies. Acesulfame potassium and saccharin also showed to increase cancer risk in animals throughout studies. The safest low calorie sweeteners were erythritol, stevia leaf extract, and potentially monk fruit.
One health concern from low-calorie sweeteners that’s received especially mixed reviews is diabetes. While some experts from a 2014 study claim that drinking diet sodas and low-cal sugars have shown high spikes in blood sugar and a decrease in glucose tolerance, others such as the official Diabetes UK website recommend diet drinks with aspartame and saccharin as suitable options for those with diabetes. These spikes in blood sugar and decreased glucose tolerance didn’t seem to happen antibiotics were combined with the low-calorie sweeteners. This result suggests that there might be a possible connection between these sweeteners and overall gut health. In fact, these fake sugars have different chemical structures, which mean they are each broken down differently in the body. Long-term studies seem to negate the previous findings of higher blood sugar levels, but the safest option is to ask your doctor if you’re worried about lo-cal sugars and diet drinks affecting the link to diabetes and your own long-term blood sugar levels.
Finally, one of the last common assumptions or health concerns potentially linked with low-calorie sweeteners is the risk of dementia and stroke. Early evidence and studies showed a possible link between low-cal sweeteners and dementia and stroke, but it was rather weak. Some research that includes all health aspects throughout time and the addition of sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose claim increased risks for stroke and dementia, but there needs to be further proof and evidence in order to become a stronger factor. If you’re highly concerned about the potential dangers low-cal sweeteners can cause with these two health risks, it’s recommended to stick to overall healthier beverages and options such as water.
Overall, some low-calorie sweeteners are more safe to consume than others. It’s recommended to avoid sweeteners such as acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Keep caution when consuming monk fruit extract, as there isn’t much testing or evidence about its potential health risks. In moderation, it’s usually safe to consume hydrogenated starch hydrolysate, isomalt, lacitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. Your best options for low-cal sweeteners that have the lowest connections to health risks include erythritol (Equal Naturals, Lakanto, Splenda Naturals, Swerve, Truvia, Wholesome Zero), neotame (Newtame), and stevia leaf extract (Equal Naturals, Pure Via, Splenda Naturals, Stevia in the Raw, SweetLeaf, Truvia).
Source: Nutrition Action Healthletter - Low-Cal Sweeteners