The Not-So-Sweet Side-Effects of Artificial Sugars

Close-Up Of Sugar And Sweetener Packets In Container At Cafe (Photo by Sharon Pruitt/EyeEm via Getty Images)
The leader of the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at UConn Health discusses research showing that artificial sweeteners may actually be associated with weight gain and increased risks to heart health. (Photo by Sharon Pruitt/EyeEm via Getty Images)

In light of a new study published last week, showing that artificial sweeteners do not help in weight management and may be associated with increased BMI and cardiometabolic risk, UConn Today consulted with physician assistant Bradley Biskup, leader of the Lifestyle Medicine Program at the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center at UConn Health, to find out the latest health information about popular artificial sweeteners. 

What are the most popular sugar substitutes used by Americans?

In the United States, there are seven sugar substitutes that have been approved for use. They are stevia, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), saccharin, and advantame. Even maltitol and sorbitol are used frequently in toothpaste, mouth wash, and in foods such as “no sugar added” ice cream.

With the use of sugar substitutes on the rise, what is the latest research showing?

Initially, it was felt that artificial sweetener use instead of regular sugar would help people lose weight, and decrease their risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome. However, new research is showing just the opposite, as is shown by a recent study. The research findings published in the July issue of the journal CMAJ shows artificial sweeteners may actually be associated with weight gain and heart health risks.

What steps should Americans take to troubleshoot the potential health risks of artificial sweeteners?

The most important thing for Americans to do is to gradually reduce the amount of sugar and artificial sweeteners they are eating on a daily basis. By gradually having less, your taste buds will increase sensitivity for sugar over 20 to 25 days. If you have one quarter less sugar or artificial sweetener each month, you will allow your taste buds to adapt without noticing a significant change in perceived sweetness.

What are the downsides of consuming too much sugar?

The problem of consuming too much sugar isn’t just with the sugar. It is also with the simple carbohydrates from processed foods that have a very similar effect. The processed foods that are high in simple carbs have a significant glycemic (sugar) effect on the blood and are very inflammatory for the body. This is leading not only to cardiovascular disease, but to increased incidence of almost all diseases. Our body functions much better with non-processed plant-based whole foods that are much less inflammatory and much more stabilizing to our blood sugars.

What is the most powerful potential daily diet to stay healthy and live longer?

Americans in general saturate their diet with high sugar, salt, and fat. If we are trying to live longer, we just need to look at the cultures of people who live the longest in the world. National Geographic writer Dan Buettner went to areas in the world where the life expectancy is at least 10 years longer than the average American. He found they all have a primarily plant-based whole food diet with minimal, if any, processed or animal-based foods. Our body thrives on processing plant-based whole foods, it doesn’t need any more help to process food.