I’ve maintained a keen interest in artificial sweeteners since I first wrote about them in 2014, largely because, even then, I couldn’t really draw any firm conclusions on whether they were good or bad for you.
In the time since, nothing definitive one way or another has come out, but there has been more research and information made available. A study released this past week noted that artificial sweeteners may increase our risk for obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
This piqued my interest, in part because the word may threw up some red flags for me. When findings of any research say this or that “may” result in certain side effects, it usually means the conclusions drawn are the result of wishful thinking or educated guesswork. However, this particular study wasn’t really that, either.
The new research
This study did use the word “may,” and while its conclusions are suspect as a result, I believe there’s a genuine attempt to get at the truth. Why? Because this study was a systematic review of 37 studies that followed over 400,000 people for an average of 10 years. Now, only seven of these studies are randomized control trials (RCT, the gold standard in clinical research), but still, it’s rare that anyone would spend so much time and effort on a study that manipulates results based on what the researchers want to happen.
Does that mean we should take these conclusions as fact? No, not necessarily. Why not? Because the seven RCT studies found no significant link between artificial sweeteners and adverse health effects. The other studies, cohort studies, did find a link between artificial sweeteners and adverse health effects (including higher body mass index). However, these changes were not (on average) severe. Also, these adverse results were observed after the fact. There was a correlation between ingesting artificial sweeteners and these side effects, but the researchers did not prove causation. All that is a fancy way of saying they proved the two happened together, but they didn’t prove one thing caused the other thing to happen.
Where does that leave us?
I understand the instinct to draw a conclusion one way or another. It’s what people do, myself included, but I would urge caution here. This particular study did look at side effects over a 10-year period, and while that’s a good amount of time, it’s not long enough to be the definitive answer many of us are looking for. The other thing to remember is that although this study did find, in general, negative side effects linked to artificial sweeteners, other studies have actually shown positive health effect links.
The other thing to remember is that not all artificial sweeteners are the same, and therefore, not all of them will bring about the same results. Stevia, for instance, often gets lumped in with artificial sweeteners, but it’s actually a naturally occurring substance. Unlike most artificial sweeteners, Stevia does have a caloric value, but it’s so small that it’s virtually nonexistent. Regardless, Stevia has been found to be beneficial to your health.
I’ve yet to see any sort of definitive proof that, in general, artificial sweeteners will cause positive or negative effects on your health. Yes, some studies paint them in a positive light, while others cast them negatively. In neither situation, however, are those effects massive in scale. Weight fluctuations are usually within a few pounds. The risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity never seem to shift more than a few degrees in one direction or another.
For me, the definitive answer on artificial sweeteners is still probably a long way off, if it ever really comes at all. It reminds me of coffee in that way. One week, it promises to add years to your life, and the next, it promises to take years off your life. I think the answer lies not so much in the coffee or the artificial sweeteners themselves, but more with the person who puts them in their body.
What do I mean?
Artificial sweeteners can be incorporated into your diet while you’re exercising and eating healthier. As a result, if you stick with it, you’re likely to lose weight. However, if you continue to live a sedentary lifestyle and don’t eat a balanced diet, you’ll likely gain weight while you’re on artificial sweeteners. If, for instance, you switch your daily sugary soda with a diet soda with artificial sweeteners, it may help you and it may not. I can’t speak to each individual person, but I can say it looks like it won’t help or hurt you to any amount you can’t overcome all on your own.
The long-term effects, if there are any, probably won’t be known for years or even decades. That’s the other reason ongoing research like this remains helpful. It’s just too early to tell how artificial sweeteners, when taken for 50 years, will change how our bodies operate. The same is true for the effects of staring at the screen of our phones and our frequent use of social media. It will change us in some ways, not just personally, but it could very well change society and the world as we know it. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? Most young people will say it’s good, and older people will say it’s bad. In the end, what matters for us personally is what we do with the information at hand. So if you like artificial sweeteners, use them. Just don’t expect them to change much on their own. Bettering yourself requires dedication and breaking a sweat.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.