When saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, was discovered in 1879, it was considered a boon for people with diabetes. That’s because it could sweeten foods without triggering a spike in blood sugar, as an organization devoted to saccharin’s research and history notes. Since that time, a torrent of artificial sweeteners has flooded the market, with promises about not only diabetes management but also weight loss. The idea, of course, is that artificial sweeteners’ lack of calories and carbs allows people to enjoy sweet flavors without a high metabolic price tag. (Sounds like the ultimate example of “have your cake and eat it too,” no?)
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sweet Twin, Necta Sweet)
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Sugar Twin, Equal)
- Acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K (Sweet One, Sunett)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Neotame (Newtame)
Each has its own unique advantages and drawbacks, and numerous studies have examined the safety and efficacy of each for weight loss. Still, faux sweeteners have been plagued by accusations of everything from causing cancer to making you pack on excess pounds rather than shed them.
Wondering whether reaching for a little pink or blue packet could really lead to weight loss? Here’s what science and experts have to say.
Research on Artificial Sweeteners and Weight
Given the controversial interplay between artificial sweeteners and weight loss, it’s not surprising that studies on their relationship abound. Unfortunately, the conclusions aren’t perfectly clear-cut.
One review published in Frontiers in Nutrition, for example, contended that the majority of clinical studies report no significant or beneficial effects of artificial sweeteners on body weight (though the authors noted that long-term studies on humans are scarce). Similarly, a systematic review published in The BMJ found no evidence of any effect by non-sugar sweeteners on overweight or obese adults or children trying to lose weight. And in a real bombshell, an analysis of 37 studies published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal revealed that people who regularly consumed artificial sweeteners actually had a higher body mass index (BMI) and risk of cardiometabolic disease than those who did not consume them.
On the other hand, some research suggests that alternative sweeteners might help you trim down. A meta-analysis of 20 studies concluded that nonnutritive sweeteners led to significant reductions in weight and BMI. A separate meta-analysis, meanwhile, analyzed data from 14 cohorts involving more than 416,000 subjects. In five of the cohorts, drinking low- and no-calorie sweetened beverages was associated with lower weight, and in three cohorts, substituting artificially sweetened drinks for sugar-sweetened ones was linked with lower weight and incidence of obesity. However, the researchers emphasized that these conclusions were of “low to very low certainty,” due to limitations in consistency and precision in the studies.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy?
Regardless of whether artificial sweeteners lower the number on the scale, many people have concerns about their general safety. After all, they’re often synthetically produced and are a relatively new addition to our food supply. Plus, despite their sweet taste, the body doesn’t recognize them as sugar. “Our bodies process low- and no-calorie sweeteners differently than sugar. One result of sugar metabolism is calories. This is not the case with low- and no-calorie sweeteners,” explains Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications with the International Food Information Council in Washington, DC.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the Splenda in your baked goods or a diet drink with lunch will wreak havoc on your health. On the contrary, artificial sweeteners have been extensively studied for safety, and generous upper limits are recommended by public health organizations. “The FDA has set an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each sweetener,” says Toronto-based Justine Chan, RD, CDCES, founder of Your Diabetes Dietitian. “For example, the ADI for aspartame is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight each day. So if you weigh 68 kilograms, or 150 pounds, you could safely have up to 3,400 milligrams of aspartame per day. Since there is roughly 200 milligrams of aspartame per can of diet soda, this would mean up to 17 cans per day to reach your upper limit.”
Granted, not everyone can tolerate high amounts of alt-sweeteners. People with digestive disorders, for example, may need to be careful with certain options. “Individuals dealing with irritable bowel syndrome should avoid artificial sweeteners that contain sorbitol or erythritol, as they may aggravate the condition,” says Lisa Andrews of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati. She also recommends that people with the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria avoid aspartame.
People with diabetes should consider working with a registered dietitian or other healthcare professional before diving into the world of artificial sweeteners. Chan says that there is limited research on the safety of some newer options, like neotame and thaumatin, with diabetes. Still, she emphasizes that, in general, nonnutritive sweeteners can be an excellent (and even healthy) choice for people with the condition. “For example, a zero-calorie, artificially sweetened drink can substitute for your favorite sugar sweetened drink because of their similar flavor profiles,” she notes. “Also, people with diabetes often enjoy very little of the food they eat because of all the dietary restrictions, so it can be a nice alternative to have. In this way, artificial sweeteners can increase satisfaction and help you to stick to your meal plan over the long term.”
And a final rule of thumb, the use of artificial sweeteners doesn’t always translate to healthiness. Many foods that incorporate these ingredients are highly processed or contain large amounts of saturated fat, sodium, and additives. Diligent label reading can help you determine a food’s overall nutritional picture.
Should You Use Artificial Sweeteners When Trying to Lose Weight?
With all the conflicting evidence swirling around artificial sweeteners and weight, it’s helpful to get expert insight into the matter. So, are these zero-calorie foods worth including in your diet if you’re looking to drop a pants size, according to dietitians and researchers?
In a nutshell, yes — but you don’t necessarily have to include them. “There are many approaches to losing and maintaining body weight, and the common food thread among them is cutting back on total calorie consumption,” says Sollid. “Because low- and no-calorie sweeteners provide zero or negligible calories, they can be helpful in reducing the number of calories, especially calories from added sugars in beverages, that we consume.”
If your weight loss journey involves a specific diet plan besides calorie-cutting — such as a Mediterranean diet, plant-based diet, or keto diet — you can choose to include artificial sweeteners in those, too. Because these products have few or zero calories and carbs, they won’t significantly interfere with counting macros or strategizing plant-forward meals. (Most artificial sweeteners are vegan.) However, some diets, like Whole30, exclude the use of all sweeteners, including artificial ones. It’s up to you to determine your comfort level around including artificial sweeteners in your chosen diet plan.
Andrews agrees that alternative sweeteners can have a place in a weight loss diet. “While some nonnutritive sweeteners could impact glycemic control or pose a risk for weight gain, I still prefer clients use them over traditional calorie-containing sweeteners if diabetes management or weight loss are their goals.”
Just realize that reaching for a Diet Coke or a Sweet’N Low for your morning coffee isn’t a panacea for weight loss. “Artificial sweeteners are not a magic bullet, and consuming them does not guarantee weight loss or improved health,” says Sollid. “In addition to modifying what we eat and drink, successful weight loss/maintenance plans strive to simultaneously improve health and also encourage people to focus on things like regular exercise, sleep quality, and establishing/maintaining social support networks.”