What are artificial sweeteners, where can I find them and how long will they take to kill me?
In this artificially-sweetened episode, I dodge lawsuits from Big Sugar to bring you the sweet, sweet truth about the nutritional value and risks of artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are arguably one of the most contentious topics in nutrition but by the end of your time here, you’ll be in the know. Do they cause cancer? Does it kill your gut bacteria? Does it spike insulin? Does it cause weight gain? Are you a rat? All of these questions are answered in full in under ten minutes so sit back, relax, and grab a Coke Zero as we dive into it.
Hey guys, welcome back to the Bite Me Podcast. As you probably just heard I have doubled the production budget, I now have intro music, so pretty exciting things are happening. Today I want to talk to you about artificial sweeteners. This is a topic that man, how much have we heard about this? Unfortunately not everything that we've heard should be listened to, and by the end of this podcast my hope is that you would know what is true, what you can listen to, and what you can ignore, and also you can make the choice as to whether you want to include artificial sweeteners in your diet or not. Please remember that you are an adult and you can choose either, and you also don't need to enforce those decisions on other people. Anyway, artificial sweeteners are also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, and what that essentially means is these are sweeteners that provide no nutrition, they provide no calories in our diet, and that's how we are able to add them to foods to massively reduce the calories that they provide. There's many, many, many different types of artificial sweeteners, but the big three that we're probably most familiar with are aspartame, acesulfame K, and sucralose. Now aspartame is otherwise known in as Equal, and you're going to find it in Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, sugar free gum, and sugar free, I'm going to get so sick of saying sugar free, sugar free Red Bull. Acesulfame K is also found in Coke Zero and Pepsi Max. Sucralose is otherwise known as Splenda and can be found mostly in your supplements, protein powders, pre-workouts, things like that, and is also one of the main sweeteners in sugar free V. Now the reason they can be added and provide so few calories is because they're all incredibly sweet, all of those three that I mentioned are at least 200 times sweeter than sugar, which means that to get the same sort of level of sweetness we need to add far, far less of them, so they're only in very tiny amounts in all of our food. The other thing is just the way that they metabolized, a lot of them aren't broken down by the body so they just go the whole way through. Now I really want to talk about the way that these are legislated, because that's a very important fact and an important thing to remember. Because these are found so commonly in so many different areas of our food, they are very heavily regulated. It's quite difficult to get a new artificial sweetener onto the market and into the food system. So the way that this occurs is the governing bodies put together a toxicology report, which essentially pulls a whole bunch of rodent data, a whole bunch of studies and comes up with a at a dose, and this dose, this level of artificial sweeteners, is called the no observable adverse effect level. They establish that level, really catchy name, I know, and essentially that is the amount, the dose of artificial sweeteners that you can have per day where we observe no negative effects, no downsides. So they've got that number, they then divide that number by 1000. That's wrong, they divide it by 100, and they come up with what's called the acceptable daily intake. So this is 100 times smaller than the original number, and then that's the dose that they put as the upper limit. Now to put that in perspective, aspartame, the Diet Coke, Pepsi Max, that has a acceptable daily intake, that level, of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. So for myself, an 85 kilogram male, that means I can have about 4.25 grams of it a day. That's 22 and a half cans of Coke Zero. So don't do that, I feel like you probably don't need me to tell you that, and look, even if you want to go ahead and do that, you're still 100 times below the no observable at adverse effect level. So the dosages that we're talking about that can be found in our food are pretty low. Artificial sweeteners and cancer is definitely something we need to talk about because I would suggest that that's probably the main criticism that's leveled at artificial sweeteners, and the reality is it's pretty unfounded. All of the evidence supporting that is coming from rat studies, and so unless you're an incredibly intelligent rat, I'm going to assume that you are not a rat listening to this podcast. So whether we can take those findings and apply them to human beings is a bit of a gray area, and to be honest, a rat's metabolism and the way they break down artificial sweeteners is different to the way that we do, so I would suggest that not really. Also just a lot of the rat models in general have been pretty poor, there was a study that really got a lot of attention because all of these rats had cancer, but the thing is they let the rats live out their natural life, and just like in human beings, the older we are the way higher our risk of just getting cancer by being fricking unlucky is, so there's no way of knowing that those cancers wouldn't have occurred naturally anyway. And then there's lots of things occurring like that, which just muddy the waters, but the thing is, newspapers don't like to report that, they like to report that artificial sweeteners give you cancer, and so that's all that someone reads, they don't necessarily dig into the studies to find that there's not really any support for that claim. The next claim that comes up is artificial sweeteners around weight gain, and I know that at first it's like, how could something with zero calories cause weight gain? And believe me, I'm right there with you. The first thing is a lot of the populations they study, they find that people with a higher BMI consume artificial sweeteners. Now the thing is, this is what's called reverse causality, and reverse causality is a bit of a bitch, because essentially instead of saying, oh, you have a high BMI and you drink lots of artificially sweetened drinks, you must have a high BMI because you drink lots of artificially sweetened drinks, instead of people with a high BMI tend to try to be losing body weight and therefore opt for more artificially sweetened drinks. So reverse causality is when we feel like the something has caused something, when in actual fact it's gone the other way. I feel like I explained that incredibly poorly, and I apologize for that. I'll probably follow up about it at a later date. One thing which is a fair point, and just something to consider if you're going to consume artificial sweeteners, is there can potentially be a behavioral effect in that people feel like, well, I didn't have any calories in my Coke, so I can have an extra dessert, I can eat more after dinner. And absolutely if you do that, that's going to cause you to gain weight. I would suggest that's not due to the fault of the artificial sweetener, that's just something that you should probably be mindful of if you are including those in your diet. Because the reality is, in all of the studies that have swapped out sugar sweetened beverages and foods for artificially sweetened beverages and foods, the groups with the artificially sweetened foods and beverages lose more weight. So from an evidence perspective, they've got good evidence for weight loss. There is also a little bit of talk about it affecting blood sugar, the reality is if it did affect blood sugar, and you had an artificially sweetened drink on an empty stomach, it would cause your fasting blood sugar to drop out of the healthy range which leads to coma and can lead to death. So if that was the case, I'd probably be dead. So the good news is there doesn't appear to be any effect on your blood sugar levels, and therefore no effect on fasting insulin, or insulin resistance, and all of these other things that are related to your metabolic health. And in actual fact, artificially sweetened foods and drinks tend to improve your metabolic health because they tend to result in weight loss, and weight loss is a very, very powerful promoter of metabolic health, so ironically the opposite tends to occur. The last one is around the gut microbiota, the gut microbiome, basically the profile of gut bacteria living in you, which is disgusting, but it's the reality. Basically there's been some talk that artificially sweetened drinks and foods change your gut microbiome. The thing is, we don't know if that change is good or bad or neutral, we just know that it changes it, and not all of them do change it. Sucralose, for example, tends to not really change it, aspartame does change it, but again, we don't know if that's good or bad, and as of now we haven't actually seen that result in anything negative. So I wouldn't, again, suggest that it's bad for your gut health, that's a very big leap. So in summary, like I said, whether you choose to consume artificially sweetened foods and beverages is completely up to you. If you choose to ignore them, eliminate them from your diet, that's completely fine. If you choose to include them at doses of less than 22 and a half cans of soft drink a day, I firmly believe you're going to be fine. That being said, nothing beats water. Please do not replace your water with two liters of Diet Coke, make sure that you're drinking plenty of water, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and if you are sprinkling the odd artificially sweetened beverage or food throughout your week, I'm sure you're going to live a long, healthy, and happy life. So that's it for me, if you have enjoyed this, please share, what do we got to do? You got to share, like, put reviews I think. I don't know, I'm bad at this, but what I would love for you to do is take a screenshot of it, chuck it in your Instagram stories and tag me so I can say thank you, and also so we can spread a bit more correct information about artificial sweeteners. Thanks guys.
Episode Links & References
- Glycemic impact of non-nutritive sweeteners: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
- Combating Excessive Eating: A Role for Four Evidence-Based Remedies
- Effects of Stevia Extract on Postprandial Glucose Response, Satiety and Energy Intake: A Three-Arm Crossover Trial
- Aspartame and Risk of Cancer: A Meta-analytic Review
- Association between intake of non-sugar sweeteners and health outcomes: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised and non-randomised controlled trials and observational studies
- Health outcomes of non-nutritive sweeteners: analysis of the research landscape
- Artificial Sweeteners: A Systematic Review and Primer for Gastroenterologists