What a Dietitian Thinks about Artificial Sweeteners

Update: Check out my Eat Local Challenge to see the cookbook up for grabs prize you could win by eating local for a week.

Sweet n’ Low. Equal. Truvia. Aspartame. Splenda. Saccharin. Sucralose.

Every few months, there’s a new story that comes out about artificial sweeteners. People get riled up about one extreme or the other – “they’re totally, completely safe” OR “they’re evil, I would never touch them.”

Recently, Coca-Cola launched a whole advertising campaign to defend the safety of aspartame – an artificial sweetener found in diet drinks and sugar-free products like Crystal Light, Wrigley’s gum, and more. You may recognize it as NutraSweet or Equal.


The soda industry is probably a bit worried, after seeing diet drink sales drop 3-6% over the past year. On the other hand, I’m very happy to see both regular and diet soda sales volume decrease!

The ad claims, “The safety of aspartame is supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years.”

I’m not sure it’s that simple. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group without ties to the food industry, gives aspartame a red X to avoid.

Screen shot 2013-08-14 at 2.51.33 PM

The CSPI also made an announcement after Coke’s campaign, saying:

Aspartame has been found to cause cancer—leukemia, lymphoma, and other tumors—in laboratory animals, and it shouldn’t be in the food supply.”

When the sweeter-than-sugar substance was first was introduced into the food industry, it was deemed unsafe by the FDA.

Aspartame was first discovered when a chemist was working on a new medication. He licked his finger, which had been contaminated with aspartame, and found it was super sweet. After some sketchy science and cancerous mice, it was approved for human use.

Studies the industry points to include one that used adults (ages 50-71) and did not find negative health effects. On the other hand, three independent studies on animals have found it can cause cancer. The main complaints of aspartame are neurological symptoms – headaches, dizziness, behavioral changes – and digestive distress.

The problems I see with artificial sweeteners are:

  • Research on other populations, especially kids and pregnant women! Even IF it may be safe for adults, kids are vulnerable to health effects as they grow. They are much smaller than adults, so a “safe” dose for adults may be very harmful for a growing child or baby. I don’t think it’s a good idea that the dairy industry is planning to add aspartame to milk for kids in school.
  • Industry Influence. The safety of our food is usually determined by the food companies who want to sell us the food. The food additives (artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, etc.) do not go through strict investigation.
  • Dose. Aspartame can be found in >6000 foods including diet foods/sodas, gum, and even vitamins. People are eating large amounts of these foods and beverages. I doubt a single dose on occasion will make a difference on your health, but many people are consuming a LOT of artificial sweeteners.
  • Weight Management. Many people choose diet drinks or food as a low-calorie option to avoid weight gain. Sorry to burst your bubble, but research is now showing that drinking diet sodas may actually cause MORE weight gain than drinking regular soda, as well as risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Hint: skip all sodas!
  • Pleasure. Artificial sweeteners are sweeter than sugar. When you’re used to a super-sweet soda everyday, other foods tend to taste less sweet. Nature’s candy – fruit – is no longer sweet and enjoyable. Replacing artificial or sweetened foods and beverages with naturally sweet foods will give you the sweet fix you’re looking for, as well as tons of other nutrients.
  • No Nutritional Value. There is no nutritional reason to choose artificial sweeteners, and they often take the place of foods and beverages that can provide nutrients. When you eat a nutrient-dense diet, you begin to choose nutrient-rich foods over foods without any nutrients. Even though sugar-free pudding has no calories, it also won’t provide any nutrients.

WOW. What to Do Next:

Eat whole foods.

This is by far the easiest step. Nature-made food like fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, and more are all free of artificial sweeteners (and other artificial crap). By making your diet whole-food based, you can avoid all the fake food ingredients and their potential health risks.


Naturally sweet fruit.

Drink whole beverages.

Again, even IF these sweeteners are safe, water is still best. You can stay well-hydrated with beverages like water, homemade smoothies or juices, tea, coconut water, and more. There’s tons of fun recipes on my Pinterest page to spice up your water, like throwing cucumber or lemon in your water, or making a mint iced tea. If you like the fizz of soda, try seltzer water.

Read Labels

Thankfully, you can find these hiding in foods by reading labels. Take the time to read the ingredient labels.

  • Look for short, readable ingredient labels. If you understand what’s in a food, you’ll be better off. For example, a cashew cookie Larabar‘s ingredient label reads: cashews, dates. So simple and real.
  • Watch out for sugar-free, fat-free, low-calorie labeled foods. If a sweet food claims it is “sugar-free,” it’s probably sweetened with an artificial sweetener instead. Fat-free foods remove the fat and either add sugar, artificial sweeteners, or both.
  • Know the artificial sweetener names. You’re probably familiar with the brand names – Equal, Splenda, etc. However, labels may use generic names instead like Acesulfame-K. Look for these names: Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame-K, Sucralose, Neotame. Here is a list of sweeteners, including caloric/sugar sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols.

Pepsi: high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, & sucralose

Be mindful of sweetness. 

Don’t stress out about one ingredient. Your diet is made up of many meals and snacks during the week, and consuming one snack every once in a while that is artificially sweetened is not going to kill you.

Sugar has proven itself to be a bigger overall health threat, so it’s important to be mindful of how much sugar or artificial sweeteners you eat on a regular basis. Once you start reading labels, you’ll be amazed by how much sugar or artificial sweeteners are hiding in your food.

Be mindful of the sweetness in your food. Choose naturally sweet foods like fruit, or sweeten your foods with a small amount of natural sugar like maple syrup or honey. If you are craving sugar, there may be an underlying reason, such as poor blood sugar regulation, stress, or emotional triggers that you may want to address.

Are you worried about artificial sweeteners in your food or drinks?


One response to “What a Dietitian Thinks about Artificial Sweeteners

  1. Pingback: August in Photos + What I’m Reading | The Running Carrot·

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