Artificial sweeteners may be found in everything from breath mints and chewing gums to jams, jellies, and juices, and even nutritional bars and yogurts. Is one healthier than another?
The National Institutes of Health–AARP study, which followed hundreds of thousands of Americans for a decade, found that frequently drinking sweetened beverages may increase depression risk among older adults. Indeed, adding sugar to coffee may negate many of coffee’s positive effects on mood, and adding the artificial sweetener aspartame (found in Equal and NutraSweet) or saccharine (in Sweet ’n Low) was associated with an increased risk of depression.
The controversy surrounding aspartame’s neurological effects began in the 1980s when subjects with a history of depression seemed to experience such severe reactions to the sweetener that a study was halted prematurely. More recently, aspartame’s neurobehavioral effects were investigated in a population free from mental illness. Healthy individuals were split into two groups with half given a higher dose of aspartame (the equivalent of about three liters of Diet Coke’s worth) and the other half a lower dose (a single liter of Diet Coke’s worth). Then the groups switched. After only eight days on the higher-aspartame dose, participants exhibited more depression and irritability, and performed worse on certain brain function tests.
Blackstrap molasses and date sugar may be the only two health-promoting caloric sweeteners. Other such sweeteners, such as honey and maple, agave, and brown rice syrups don’t appear to offer much nutritionally.
And stevia? The World Health Organization considers up to 1.8 mg of stevia compounds per pound of bodyweight to be a safe amount, so having up to two stevia-sweetened drinks a day may be considered harmless.
The sugar alcohols sorbitol and xylitol may also be harmless, but they aren’t absorbed by the body and end up in the colon, where they can draw in fluid and cause diarrhea. A related compound—erythritol—is absorbed and may have the harmlessness of xylitol without the laxative effect.
Erythritol doesn’t cause cavities and hasn’t been implicated in fibromyalgia, preterm birth, headaches, hypertension, or brain disorders like other low-calorie sweeteners. Erythritol may also have some antioxidant properties. As with any highly processed product, though, its utility should be confined to increasing your consumption of more healthful foods.
Image Credit: Amanda Rae. This image has been modified.
Popular Videos for Sweeteners
All Videos for Sweeteners
Is Monk Fruit Sweetener Safe?
The natural plant-based sweeteners stevia and monk fruit (Luo Han Guo) are pitted head-to-head against aspartame and Splenda.
Dining by Traffic Light: Green Is for Go, Red Is for Stop
A video explaining my traffic light system for ranking the relative healthfulness of Green Light vs. Yellow Light vs. Red Light foods.
Arsenic in Rice Milk, Rice Krispies, & Brown Rice Syrup
I recommend people switch away from using rice milk.
Microbiome: We Are What They Eat
What happens to our gut flora when we switch from a more animal-based diet to a more plant-based diet?
Does Aspartame Cause Cancer?
How should we parse the conflicting human data on aspartame (Nutrasweet) intake and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, leukemia, and pancreatic cancer?
Does Diet Soda Increase Stroke Risk as Much as Regular Soda?
Sugar is no longer considered just empty calories, but an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. So what happens if you switch to artificial sweeteners?
Effect of Sucralose (Splenda) on the Microbiome
What effect do artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet & Low), aspartame (Nutrasweet), and acesulfame K (Sweet One) have on our gut bacteria?
Aspartame & the Brain
The reason artificially sweetened beverages have been associated with depression may be because of psychological disturbances recently tied to aspartame (“Equal” or “NutraSweet”).
Coffee & Artery Function
The new dietary guidelines for beverages recommend tea and coffee second only to water in healthfulness, but what about concerns they might impair the function of our endothelium?
Are Fatty Foods Addictive?
Those eating calorie-dense diets may have a reduced capacity to enjoy all of life’s pleasures by deadening dopamine pathways in the brain.
Are Sugary Foods Addictive?
Evidence from PET scans suggests brain activity changes from the overconsumption of sugar may parallel that of drug addiction. Diminished “pleasure center” dopamine pathway sensitivity in obese individuals may be analogous to that found in cocaine addicts and alcoholics.
Apple Juice May Be Worse than Sugar Water
Why the spike in antioxidant levels in our bloodstream after drinking apple juice might not be a good thing.