Not-So-Sweet Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

Science Friday podcast recently reported about a new systemic review highlighting negative consequences of consuming artificial sweeteners. I should make it clear that this has nothing to do with the fear mongering you’ll see on alternative health sites. There’s no good evidence to show that artificial sweeteners cause neurological damage (at least that I’m aware of).

They interviewed the study author Prof. Susan Swithers from Purdue University. This was a systemic review that collated and reviewed data from relevant studies in the past five years, in other words some of the highest quality scientific evidence available (barring author bias).

Here are the points she made:

  • Artificial sweeteners may confuse the brain that leads to metabolic derangements.
  • Normally sweet taste is accompanied by increase in blood sugar level. And the brain uses the sweet taste to prepare for the arrival of sugar. Examples include secretion of digestive enzymes that breakdown carbohydrates and signaling the pancreas to release insulin. Let’s call this as metabolic response.
  • Consuming artificially sweeteners doesn’t trigger this metabolic response. Over time this could uncouple sweet taste from the metabolic response.
  • Uncoupling sweet taste from the metabolic response can weaken your body’s ability to deal with carbohydrates, leading to higher post-meal blood sugar and insulin levels, which can lead to metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
  • Currently there’s not enough data to say how much artificial sweeteners you can safely consume, but she pointed out that the data shows the biggest increase in risk when you go from people who never consume artificial sweeteners to the lowest intake group. So even a few cans of diet soda per week can be problematic.
  • It’s not that artificial sweeteners are dangerous per se; just that frequent consumption may cause the brain to unlearn responses that prevent metabolic damage.

So what does this have to do with acne? Well, there’s data to show insulin resistance and other similar metabolic derangement can contribute to acne, and insulin is one of the key hormones affecting acne. Anything you can do to reduce insulin level would generally be helpful in acne.

Diet sodas seem to be a way to have your cake and eat it too, in that they allow you to enjoy sodas without worrying about calories or excess sugar. That’s why I started drinking them. In the light of these findings, I have to rethink that decision.

While diet sodas are still much better than sugar sweetened beverages, they may have counter-intuitive and negative consequences. It seems that uncoupling sweet taste from the accompanying metabolic response delays insulin release and temporarily allows blood sugar level to increase too high. This is similar to what happens during the early stages of insulin resistance. When the first phase insulin response is not sufficient (due to insulin resistance) blood sugar level increases too high until the pancreas has time to release more insulin. This temporary increase in blood sugar level can significantly increase the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

I quickly looked over the paper and it seemed like Prof. Swithers’ conclusions were somewhat speculative. Data shows that people who consume diet sodas have higher risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes and weight gain, but I’m not completely sold that it’s because of metabolic derangements. There’s still too much uncertainty in the data to conclusive say that.

That said the smart thing to do is to give up artificial sweeteners. Because in all the studies they were associated with negative effects and none of the studies showed positive effects from artificial sweeteners, especially when compared to water.

Oh, and I should make it clear this also applies to stevia. This is not so much about artificial sweeteners as it is about non-caloric sweeteners. Even the alt-med sweetheart stevia delivers sweet taste without calories, whether it’s artificial or natural is irrelevant.

So it looks like I have to give up my diet Coke. Because being open minded is a bit**, it demands obedience to data and evidence – not what you want to be true.

Link to the Science Friday episode where you can listen the interview (about 8 minutes).

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About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.

12 thoughts on “Not-So-Sweet Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

  1. Hi, what kind of sweetener would you recommend for sweetening your oatmeal or other things?
    Sugar, Honey, Brown Sugar, Agave syrup, none at all, Artificial Sweeteners. I just quit AS and i could of course go no sugar bit i think it would take a week to adapt to that.

    • If you just use little bit to sweeten oatmeal, coffee or things like that, then I don’t think it really matters. Little bit of sugar is unlikely to do any harm. In the light of this study, I would avoid artificial sweeteners.

  2. In light of this study, would you suggest adding real cane sugar in our teas then?

    That is 50g of the most refined carbohydrate every day in our 5 cups of teas.

    • How about just not put any sweetener into your tea? I know in another article I said that sweeteners help with EGCG absorption, but I’m not sure it’s worth adding so much sugar into your diet, probably not.

  3. Isn’t it possible that people who are at risk consume more artificial sweeteners? Like obese people consume more diet coke, not that diet coke makes people obese? (not that I care, it tastes awful anyway).
    I think sugar alcohol and fructose are also worth mentioning. I tried sweets with maltitol some time ago and while the taste was good, the consequences were just… I liked that it helped with bowel movements but all this gas… I was so bloated I looked as if I’m pregnant but that was nothing compared with the embarrassment of having gases that just wouldn’t stop. My friend had the same reaction (she tried them as a laxative) and it looks like it’s very common. So be very careful with sugar alcohols, even if you need a laxative, better opt for something else.

    • Yep, you pretty much nailed the reason why epidemiological studies show a link between diet soda consumption and obesity. But I don’t think that was the case here. There is a legitimate concern that sweet taste without associated sugar can decouple the two and make it harder for the body to deal with sugar.

  4. Think I’ll give up the Stevia. Maybe it’s stevia that has been giving me so much acne. I say this over my last cup of green tea with stevia.

  5. I don’t know a whole lot about biology (or much of anything, really), so maybe this is stupid.. but would the problem not be solved by using an artificial sweetener to enhance sugar rather than replace it? (For example, maybe sweetening your tea with 1/4 teaspoon of sugar and 1/8 teaspoon of Stevia, instead of one or the other) That way you wouldn’t be decoupling the sweet taste from the metabolic response?

    • It’s not a stupid question at all. I think what you describe could work. It would lower insulin demand (since you are eating less sugar), and you wouldn’t decouple sweet taste from the metabolic response.

  6. After starting an elimination diet I chose Stevia to sub for honey in my tea; as an herbalist this was a natural choice for me. By the second month I was experiencing adult patterned acne (around the jawline) and of course I blamed the 90% chocolate I was treating myself with. When the acne didn’t dissipate after giving up the chocolate, I realized the only thing left was the stevia. My face would be mostly clear in the morning, but by the afternoon (and several cups of tea) there would be fresh blemishes.
    Two days after I quit using stevia my face cleared up. Whatever the mechanism, stevia (at least in the quantities I was using) was the factor for my blemishes.
    I do love the plant and I will keep it around for occasional use, but keeping in mind that it does cause acne for me and possibly others.
    Amy

    The stevia I was using was a quality brand name ‘dry’ version and not the extract.

  7. Thank you for this article! I just went through a bout of consuming artificial sweeteners in a generic ‘0’ calorie flavored water, mints, etc… and my skin has never been worse. I gave up the AS a few days ago, and already my skin is beginning to heal. No more AS for me!

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