This article was originally published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on 10 Aug. 2023: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-754209
Over the last several months, there has been a deluge of health news in the mainstream media. From new studies confirming links between diet and heart disease to hormone replacement therapy’s association with Alzheimer’s disease, the media has been busy. Still, nothing has been more prominent than the news concerning artificial sweeteners over the past half year.
The World Health Organization now discourages non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) to control weight, or reduce the risk for diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. These sweeteners include aspartame, saccharine, sucralose, stevia, and others. These recommendation are based on findings of a review of data from 283 studies in adults, children, pregnant women, and mixed populations. The findings suggest that use of NSS does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children. They also suggest that long-term use of NSS may have potential undesirable effects. Some undesirable effects include an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and all-cause mortality in adults.
Regarding the risk for cancer, results from case-control studies suggest an association between saccharine intake and bladder cancer. Actually, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, citing a study done by the National Cancer Institute, pointed out the connection between saccharine and bladder cancer decades ago.
How long have artificial sweeteners been around? Saccharin was discovered accidentally in 1897 by Johns Hopkins University. Cyclamates and aspartame were also discovered in an accidental manner. Although it was Hyman Kirsch that started using cyclamates in his beverage called No-Cal. More than 50 years ago, Coca-Cola came up with their first diet drink called Tab. The introduction of Diet-rite cola in 1960 was the catalyst for the diet drink industry.
Since then we’ve seen Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi Max and the list goes on and on. Eventually, the food industry began putting NSS into “diet” foods claiming health benefits. What was the idea here? Less sugar, less calories, less weight and, it would have no effect on raising blood sugar in diabetics. However, we have found that not only wasn’t this effective, there has even been a reverse effect.
A new study published this past March, showed that erythritol (this comes in many names but usually we see it as Sorbitol) is closely associated with risk for “major adverse cardiovascular events.” In other words, people who have high blood levels of erythritol are more prone to heart attacks, strokes and even death. Subsequent to this, was another new study on Sucralose, also known by the brand name Splenda. This new study was so alarming that researchers said people should stop using it and the government should regulate it more.
Sucralose is used as an ingredient in packaged foods and beverages. The researchers found that sucralose causes DNA to break apart, putting people at risk for disease. They also linked sucralose to leaky (permeable) gut syndrome. That can lead to autoimmune conditions. Symptoms are a burning sensation, painful digestion, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.
Long term use
Although all of these sweeteners have been approved for use and determined as safe by government authorities, their continued use has shown to be problematic. Some sweeteners are known to cause bloating, stomach discomfort rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness, diarrhea, swelling, headaches (migraines), and bladder issues.
I recently heard an interview with gastroenterologist Dr. Will Bulsiewicz. Dr. Bulsiewicz stated that when his patients complain of bloating the first thing he asks them is if they consume artificial sweeteners. Somehow, as mentioned, these NSS are all generally regarded as safe by the FDA.
Some of the problems
Here in Israel, a study released this past year showed three of the most popular sweeteners absolutely cause dysbiosis in the microbiome (gut bacteria). This in turn increases chances of weight gain and type 2 diabetes.
A study conducted at Harvard Medical School shows that consuming diet drinks may actually increase the risk of heart disease. In this study, those who drank more than one diet or regular soda per day experienced a 25% increased risk of impaired fasting glucose and high triglyceride levels. They had a 31% greater chance of becoming obese, and a 44% increased risk of metabolic syndrome. There are many more studies over the last 15 years showing similar negatives of consuming artificial sweeteners.
In his article in 2019, Dr. Michael Greger claims that diabetes increases with use of saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose. The very products that have been touted for more than half a century to reduce weight and prevent diabetes are doing the exact opposite!
As I have pointed out time and again, whole-foods are health promoting; ultra-processed foods cause illness, disease, and early mortality. Artificial sweeteners, as the name implies, have nothing to do with whole, real food. Those things that contain artificial sweeteners are simply food-like, edible substances—not food.
Despite all of these studies and the evidence we have accumulated, the paradigm of “diet” products being better for us still permeates our society. There needs to be some government regulation– minimally, a warning label. The same as is needed for processed meats, like hot dogs and deli (level 1A carcinogens).
The little bit of good news is that sales of diet products has been gradually decreasing.
You have heard this from me before, but I’ll say it again: Your health is in your hands. Stay educated and stick with a whole-foods, plant-predominant diet. With low oil, low sugar and low salt and you can’t go wrong! Avoiding artificial sweeteners will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”