On Artificial Sweeteners and “Diet” Foods
By Ari Snaevarsson, Features Editor
What are they?
Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) are the collective name for a wide variety of sucrose-like compounds, generally 100 or more times as sweet as sucrose. Since they are so poorly absorbed, if absorbed at all, by the human GI tract, for all intents and purposes they have been rendered calorie-free (or else very low in calories). For others, it is the fact that they are so much sweeter, per portion, than sugar, they only need to be consumed in micro amounts, in which the calories do not end up adding up.
The three most popular sweeteners are saccharin (Sweet’n Low, “light” syrup), aspartame (diet sodas, sweet medicines), and acesulfame K (diet sodas, chewing gum).
Deleterious effects laid out and discussed
Correlation with weight gain
Early on in the timeline of NNS, some major epidemiological studies (NHANES being the biggest) linked consumption of NNS with weight gain. Similar studies proceeded to show correlations with insulin resistance, diabetes, visceral fat deposition, and the whole of metabolic syndrome.
However, the problem is that these findings are only significant when found in the context of large epidemiological studies. And here is the problem with that: on a national scale, the people consuming the most diet sodas and “light” chocolate syrups are generally the same ones consuming fast food regularly and exercising little.
“They are chemicals”
This is a hard point to debate, only because it is not actually a point. It is smart to be weary of foods we would not have had access to before large-scale agriculture took over, not to mention factory-born food products. However, this scrutiny must be taken to an actual conclusion. Yes, they are chemically manufactured, but why is that a concern? Unfortunately, I have not seen many proper responses to this.
In essence, the food-reward hypothesis states that when we consume something sweet, for instance, we prime our reward circuits to seek out more of that [sweet] food. This is dependent upon the reward value (“this thing is good and means that you, a Paleolithic human, are doing good, so let’s keep doing that”) and the hedonic value (“this thing tastes sweet”) of a given food/meal.
This, in accordance with the model of “mismatched calories,” adds another element to the case against NNS. The theory holds that when we consume a sweet product, through a cascade of chemical events, the brain eventually expects energy (in the form of calories). And since, in the case of NNS, we are getting little to no calories, it panics and sends out signals to go and get that energy.
In practice, it looks like this: You drink a diet soda and subsequently crave something sweet, and the cycle goes on until you consume something with calories to match the sweetness. Now, it should be noted this is still a theoretical model and certainly many, many anecdotal reports have refuted its validity.
Avoidance of high-sugar items
For whatever ambiguity exists around the healthfulness of NNS, the case with sugar is comparatively open-and-shut. Whether or not sugar activates pathways of addiction is still a topic of debate, and the carbohydrate-insulin theory pedalled by so many of the staunchly anti-sugar voices (that weight gain is not controlled by caloric balance but by insulin response) is not favorable in the eyes of science, as of current.
However, sugar carries seriously harmful effects in terms of general health (especially in the sedentary population), weight gain (not because of the carbohydrate-insulin theory but rather the rapid glycolytic pathway fructose goes through, which leads to deposition of fat in the stomach area, as well as pathogenesis of fatty liver), and dental caries.
Less weight regain, more weight stability
At least one study not only linked NNS consumption with less weight gain but also with a lower likelihood of weight regain after a weight loss bout. Another showed better weight stability (maintenance) in participants versus control.
My final word on the matter? Artificial sweeteners, like most things, are fine in moderation. You would be hard pressed to make any sort of compelling case against having them in your diet at all. Granted, if you find yourself at the point where you are basically living off them and are too afraid of weight gain to eat some real, full-sugar, full-fat foods, there is a much deeper problem we might want to address.
I admittedly ran through this information somewhat quickly, but hopefully what I have presented you can help decipher all of the confusing, conflicting views out there on artificial sweeteners. Now, go have that diet soda and do not think you have to “justify” it at all!