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What is an Artificial Sweetener?

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are intensely sweet, approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar itself. They are non-nutritive: their nutritional profile is completely empty. Their contribution of fuel for the body is non-existent, therefore calorie intake equals zero. This can be quite attractive to those wanting to lose weight or have certain blood sugar conditions.

But what exactly do they do for our bodies? The evidence is quite controversial and somewhat inconclusive.


Artificial beginnings.

Artificial sweeteners have been in production for roughly 100 years. The first to make an appearance was saccharin. Saccharin was accidentally founded by Constantine Fahlberg in 1879. Fahlberg was preparing to produce a new food preservative when he unintentionally spilled some of the synthesised product on his hands. Whilst sitting down to eat, Fahlberg noticed a profound sweet taste on his fingers. Hence forth, saccharin was invented. By 1917 Saccharin was spread across America and Europe and was the preferred choice of sweetener during World War I & II as sugar was in short supply. Aspartame was founded in a similar fashion.


What are they exactly?

There are several types of synthesised compounds used to make certain brands of artificial sweeteners. The following are allowed for use in the Australian market in the advised amounts;

Graph - ADI

*International Numbering System for food additives Australia
*Average Daily Intake (Food Standards Australia New Zealand)


Where will I find these compounds?

As we know, artificial sweeteners are readily available in supermarkets in the form of sachets and containers in designated brands. They are also used commercially to sweeten flavoured milks, jams, conserves, jellies and milk based puddings, flavoured yoghurts and mousses, confectionaries, cordials, tabletop sweeteners, fruit drinks, carbonated soft drinks, canned fruits, ice cream, toppings, sweet biscuits, chocolates, toothpaste, mouthwash and sports drinks. It is important to read the foods label to ensure you know what ingredients the items contains, particularly if you want to avoid artificial sweeteners.


The research:

There have been many in vivo (animal) and in vitro (test tube) studies involving artificial sweeteners. A large percentage of the in vivo studies involve extensive, copious daily dosages, ultimately resulting in detrimental outcomes. The trending evidence from in vivo research shows artificial sweeteners can impair brain and liver function, impair cognitive performance, disrupt blood glucose levels and increase appetite.     

Human studies are limited and controversial. In comparison to in vivo studies daily dosage, existing health conditions and extent of consumption differ significantly making it difficult to correlate. Several studies nullify consequential outcomes of ingesting artificial sweeteners. Further research is needed in order to determine what impact they have on human health.   


The Scrutiny:

Artificial sweeteners have gained a considerable amount of scrutiny over the decades. Some have been banned in certain countries and deemed unsuitable for human health, for example cyclamate is banned from consumption in America. Canada officially banned saccharin in the 70’s whilst the U.S ordered to label all saccharin containing products with a warning, which was repealed in 2000.  


Will they affect my health?

This question has posed numerous conflicting answers which remain in contentious dispute. Artificial sweeteners are just that; artificial. They are synthesised products that cannot be found in nature; they are not derived from an organic substance. Many subjective reports claim artificial sweeteners can cause headaches, abdominal and joint pain, neurological impairment, nausea and insomnia, however these claims have never been supported via scientific evidence.


Should I be consuming artificial sweeteners?

This question can be perplexing for some and a no brainer for others. The decision is entirely yours. It depends on individualistic views and what just feels right. What does one need to consider? Ponder the following; 

  • Can we rely on the science? There is no evidence to demonstrate ill health in healthy humans. 
  • Should the results of animal studies be considered?
  • Are human trials ethical?
  • Does ingestion cause subjective symptoms?
  • Artificial sweeteners are a synthesised product, they do not resemble food, and they do not contain nutrients.  
  • Some artificial sweeteners have been banned for use in certain countries.


Alternatives to the alternatives:

If artificial sweeteners do not sit right with you there are alternatives to the alternatives. If you are wanting something sweet that resembles food and contains nutrients maybe the following will suit you; raw honey, maple syrup, rice malt syrup, black strap molasses, stevia, yacon syrup, lucuma powder, coconut sugar/syrup, or brown sugar. The latter are still sugars, they do contain calories and they can alter blood sugar levels. Remember to use them sparingly alongside moderation.

The sweet truth about artificial sweeteners may be hard to digest, consider all the facts or lack thereof before you make a conscious decision to indulge.