“Sugar Free” Does Not Equal Healthy (and more startling facts about artificial sweeteners)

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When a packaged food is touted as “Sugar Free,” that oftentimes means the real sugar has been left behind and replaced with an artificial sweetener. This is yet another reason why it is so important to always read ingredient labels. Did you know that artificial sweeteners were literally invented in a lab by food scientists and that some of those sweeteners only entered our food system as recently as a few decades ago? That is practically brand new in a world where people have been eating for tens of thousands of years and – in my book – the opposite of the real, traditional foods I strive to feed my family.

The Sugar Association says these artificial replacements are “chemically manufactured molecules – molecules that do not exist in nature.” And as a result, even though we do our best to avoid white (refined) sugar, I’d personally rather eat that (i.e., the real thing) over artificial sweeteners any day. To see which added sweeteners we’ve decided are real food approved, be sure to check out our “No Refined Sweeteners” mini-pledge.

Some “Sugar Free” Examples

(Clearly I see loads of other problems with these ingredient labels, but I am just sticking to the topic at hand today.)

"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree


"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree

"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree

Recent Headlines

The facts that raise red flags against artificial sweeteners are just startling.

From a Purdue University Study:

“Accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumers of these [artificial] sugar substitutes may also be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

From TakePart.com:

“We have the abstract of the study and what the laboratory said about leukemia. We don’t have the full data yet. That’s why we put ‘caution’ instead of ‘avoid.’ When there is evidence that something causes cancer, we take that pretty seriously. [Sucralose] caused cancer in the animals. We thought that we should pass that information on, and couldn’t, in good conscious, say it was safe,” says Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest).

From CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest):

“In 2012 an independent Italian laboratory announced (but has not yet published) a study that found that sucralose caused leukemia in mice that were exposed from before birth. That was the same lab that several years earlier published studies indicating that aspartame caused cancers in rats and mice.”

From USA Today:

“Despite claims from Coke and other companies about the safety of aspartame, we still don’t know about its long-term effects,” says Karen Congro, a nutritionist and director of the Wellness for Life Club program at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. “Relying on artificial sweeteners probably causes cravings for sweets and sugar, which can contribute to obesity and poor eating habits.”

From Huffington Post:

According to Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., “A study in the journal Diabetes Care found that daily consumption of diet soda was associated with a 36 percent greater relative risk of developing metabolic syndrome and a 67 percent greater relative risk of developing Type 2 diabetes compared with non-consumption. Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, in one group of study participants, consumption of artificially sweetened beverages was associated with Type 2 diabetes. The findings are mimicked in rat studies as well. A study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners led to weight gain due to changes in the rat’s normal physiological processes of sweets. In addition to this, the presence of constant artificial sweeteners in the diet means you’re never really letting your taste buds get a break from the sweet taste you love. The more you drink diet soda, the longer you’ll remain trapped in the sugar cycle and continue to crave.” 

Artificial Sweetener Cheat Sheet

Artificial sweeteners come under a variety of different types and brand names, which makes them one of the many confusing aspects of packaged foods.

"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree

These generic versions are the five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners currently on the market.

Note: Stevia is sometimes classified as an artificial sweetener, but it’s actually derived from the stevia plant. However, it is often sold in a highly processed (powdery white) form, so it is not something we personally use or recommend.

Tell the FDA

Did you know that you can report adverse reactions or other problems associated with FDA-regulated food products? I am not sure how much it really helps, but it certainly can’t hurt. Find the correct number for your state on the FDA website. Be sure to let them know if you or someone you know has had trouble with artificial sweeteners and/or artificial food dyes.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about artificial additives in the comments below.

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150 comments to “Sugar Free” Does Not Equal Healthy (and more startling facts about artificial sweeteners)

  • Erin

    What is a good sweetener for a pitcher of decaf ice tea?what about stevia?

  • Kate

    I was wondering what happens if you leave foods with artificial sugar in them in the car during hot weather, such as sugar-free gum?

  • […] Now if there’s one thing I want to be sure of – I don’t want anyone walking away from this post thinking they should go for the artificial sweeteners instead since they don’t add up on the nutrition label. Just for the record, I’d MUCH rather eat “real” sugar over the artificial stuff any day. More on that here. […]

  • Julie

    I am going to look at gum labels as I know they too often times use artificial sweeteners. What information is there on gums/mints that are ‘safer’ for consumption? Xylitol is found in natural products but is altered in order to extract and use. It also has dental benefits. I have a 5 year old who loves to chew gum. Any thoughts?

  • Recent Headlines
    “The facts that raise red flags against artificial sweeteners are just startling”. Seriously? These “facts” are terrible examples. If we relied on the results of animal studies for all the food we eat, we wouldn’t be to consume anything. We know that animal studies cannot be directly compared with human studies. Likewise, just because a study shows a correlation between two variables, such as artificial sweeteners and risk of excessive weight gain, doesn’t mean that one causes another. Perhaps those who consume significant amounts of artificial sweeteners also consume a lot of other products that are high in calories thus, leading to their excessive weight gain. Anyone who has completed a science degree in their lifetime, such as nutrition, should at least be able to critically appraise crappy sources of information this, and be a little more critical. If you are going to argue a point, at least use sound research to back it up.

    To everyone else on this site, just because you read it on the internet, doesn’t make it fact.

  • Tracy

    I haven’t read through all the comments to see if anyone else posted this, so I apologize if it’s a duplicate. What is your opinion on artificial sweeteners for those with Type II Diabetes? As a conscientious individual with this condition, I’d rather use these than send my glucose readings sky high (which is what happens with sugar). Artificial sweeteners work for me and many others with diabetes, I’m sure. Sweeteners can help us feel less excluded when it comes to food choices. I think it’s more important to be savvy with our nutrition and educate ourselves, rather than to rule out a single ingredient. Those with diabetes have a hard enough time with conflicting (and I believe, incorrect) information from the ADA. We’re not going to die because we use Splenda in our coffee versus using sugar.

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Tracy. Certainly, we understand that there are medical conditions that make it more necessary to consume artificial sugars. My Type II mom in law has had the most luck with stevia. ~Amy

  • UR Kidding

    I have to echo Andrew’s statements about the examples not really being legit. Of course, since many of these sweeteners are relatively new, there is limited information about their long-term effects in humans. So if there are long-term effects–and that is your primary concern–then you may have a point. However, none of these data support the often heard claim that artificial sweeteners are “just as bad” as real sugar. When I hear this claim, I ask “what’s the evidence for that”? The only answers I get back are usually vague comments about them being “not natural”. That is not evidence. Let’s take the examples above:

    1. From Purdue: This is an opinion piece that posits a hypothesis. It is not a primary research paper. To be sure, there are likely supporting pieces of evidence in the article, but it is not clear-cut.

    2. TakePart: Huge RED FLAG here–they don’t have the data yet! Let’s wait for the data because it is, by definition, the evidence. Lacking it we cannot evaluate anything.

    3. CSPI: Same as #2. Rumors are not evidence.

    4. USA Today: It’s reasonable to think that a new additive could have long-term effects. However, this statement is not evidence of any harm caused by these products.

    5. Note the control group is non consumers. If your question is, “Are artificial sweeteners worse than sugar?” You have to compare to folks eating sugar. Maybe a 2 cans of diet Coke per day habit is worse for type 2 diabetes than no Diet Coke, but is it worse than 2 cans of regular Coke per day? I doubt it (but fully admit that I don’t know and I am open to bona fide, controlled evidence.)

    I think its really important to not over-demonize these substances. It is very likely that they aid folks who need to cut calories and decrease their sugar intake to do so. Obesity is a huge problem in the US and a lot is clearly due to the huge sugar habit we have as a nation!

    It’s also clear that artificial sweeteners are not a robustly toxic/carcinogenic substance. We’d have those data by now. What I mean is that this is not a smoking cigarettes and lung cancer connection we’re talking about. I doubt they’ll have a perfect health record (what does?), but until we have real evidence to show that their bad for you, let’s be reserved in our judgement.

    Importantly, I do agree we shouldn’t assume they’re harmless either, so let’s do the good, well-controlled studies!

  • […] lies! Melodrama aside, it’s simply not good for you. If you want some basics, check out the breakdown 100 Days of Real Food did in 2013. The short story is, consuming fake sugar doesn’t satisfy […]

  • […] And if you’re thinking sugar substitutes and “diet” anything is the way to go, I urge you to read this great post: “Sugar Free Does Not Equal Healthy (And More Startling Facts About Artificial Sugars.” […]

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