How sweet it isn’t
In the late 1800′s, as the story goes, a Russian chemist sat down to dinner without washing his hands and unwittingly discovered what we know today as the artificial sweetener saccharin. He’d bitten into a curiously sweet dinner roll and, apparently, it literally was finger-licking good: he realized the slightly metallic sweetness on his fingers came from the coal-tar residue on his hands.
Saccharin was soon patented and is now among the five artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA, along with aspartame, neotame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium, also known as acesulfame K.
But multiple studies on these artificial compounds and have raised concerns that might give you pause before reaching for that next diet cola. Yes, they are calorie-free. But that’s not the whole story. Although earlier reports of a tie to cancer have been debunked, consider these findings:
- A 2015 study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found diet soda drinkers over 65 experienced a quadrupling of waist circumference over non-diet soda drinkers. Obesity hasn’t conclusively been linked to the sweeteners, but other behaviors triggered by sweeteners have raised a red flag. Are you subconsciously rewarding yourself with high-calorie treats because you’ve been so good?
- A 2013 book, “The Sugar Smart Diet” by Prevention magazine editor Anne Alexander, indicates that the sweeter taste is addictive. Saccharin is 200 times to 300 times sweeter than sugar; sucralose 600 times sweeter. Laboratory rats exposed to cocaine actually passed up more of the drug for saccharine.
- That same sweetness tricks your body into releasing insulin, causing blood sugar to spike. It also reduces the hormone GLEP-1, which balances blood-sugar levels and makes you feel full, according to Purdue University’s Susan Swithers in a 2013 study. You’re left hungry and craving more.
- Even more disturbing are findings reported in Harvard Health in 2016. It cited a study that found diet soda drinkers are 36 percent more at risk of having a metabolic syndrome. They also have a 67 percent higher risk of contracting Type 2 diabetes.
- On the environmental front, two studies, the most recent in 2013, found that artificial sweeteners don’t break down when flushed away to wastewater treatment plants. Sucralose and acesulfame K were found in the treated water released to rivers. In a totally unrelated recent study, tests of public swimming pools found artificial sweeteners in the water, leading researchers to issue a stern warning to swimmers about urinating in the pool.
- Back to that intense sweetness: In time, artificial sweeteners dull your tastebuds. Your body is left craving what it can’t enjoy anymore, leading to increased consumption of sweets.
These findings, taken with other research, should be enough to leave you thinking twice before you reach for an artificial sweetener.