Whether you realize it or not, artificial sweeteners are probably part of your daily diet. Sugar substitutes like saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose have made their way into everything from soda to cereal.
One of the reasons these artificial sweeteners are so popular is that the sugar substitute industry pushes the product as an aid to weight loss. But that popularity might be in jeopardy. A new study suggests artificial sweeteners might actually contribute to significant health issues.
The cure for ‘prosperity stomach’
Artificial sweeteners have been part of Americans’ diets for more than a century, even if their introduction was originally a secret.
Carolyn Thomas, a professor of American studies and a Vice Provost at the University of California-Davis, says that carbonated beverage makers began sneaking artificial sugars into their drinks as far back as the 1870s — and people were not happy about it.
“When Americans found out this substitute for healthful sugar was in their sodas, they rebelled,” Thomas said.
But over the years, that changed. The use of artificial sugars dramatically increased after World War II as the canned food industry looked for new ways to compete with supermarkets’ fresh produce and frozen foods. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical and artificial sweetener companies had increasing evidence that American women were concerned about weight. Artificial sweeteners were portrayed as a low-calorie approach to “the future of food.”
“In the '60s, artificial sweetener marketers met with women’s magazine editors and supermarket executives. They were served a whole meal, from the hors d’oeuvres to the dessert, with artificial sweeteners,” Thomas said. “The keynote speaker told the group: 'There’s so much good stuff to eat and people want to eat it all the time, but what are you going to do about that ‘prosperity stomach’? Diet food.'”
In the decades that followed, the artificial sweetener industry continuously marketed its products as a way to stay healthy and lose weight. Thomas says these messages made an enormous impression on society.
“Artificial sweeteners have made it much more difficult to simply eat when you’re hungry — and even know what it means to be hungry,” she said.
The health effects of artificial sweeteners
The debate over whether artificial sweeteners are helpful or harmful to American diets started decades ago and continues today.
While some members of the scientific community say artificial sweeteners are still a better option than sugar, a new meta-analysis (a study of studies) questions the health benefits promoted by the sugar substitute industry.
“There was no clear evidence of benefit and there was some evidence of potential harm,” said Meghan Azad, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and lead author of the study. Sugar substitutes work, of course, because they’re sweet like sugar. And Azad says it’s possible that our metabolism actually treats the sweetener like sugar. “There’s a theory that if you do this year after year, you might be resetting your metabolism in a way that’s setting yourself up for more weight gain,” Azad said.
She found that those who consume artificial sweeteners have an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes over time.
Not everyone believes this study holds up, though. In July, the Calorie Control Council, a lobbying group that supports artificial sweeteners, released a statement arguing that researchers didn’t account for factors like ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or whether a person had a preexisting disease like diabetes. Without factoring in these variables, the council says Azad’s findings might be skewed.
But even with studies like Azad’s, Carolyn Thomas says we shouldn’t expect artificial sweeteners to disappear anytime soon. The industry has, in part, turned its attention toward young men, offering energy drinks (think Rockstar and Monster) that enable them to stay up partying or studying.
“I still think grabbing something that’s diet still has virtue points. I think it’s going to take a while before we move away from this idea that, ‘this is a good treat for me,’” she said.