Artificial Sweeteners and Other Food Substitutes: Dangerous to Your Health?

Dr. Oz examines the risks linked to artificial sweeteners and other food substitutes. Bottom line: They’re not always the healthier option.

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You put artificial sweeteners in your coffee, drink them in your diet soda and use them to limit sugar intake and cut calories. But could they be hazardous to your health?

This question is critical since the average American consumes 24 pounds of artificial sweeteners each year. Soda is the most common place they’re found, but did you know that sugar substitutes are also added to nearly 6,000 other products sold in the US, including baby foods, frozen dinners and even yogurts?

The four major groups of FDA-approved artificial sweeteners on the market are:

  • Aspartame (includes Equal, Nutrasweet brands)
  • Sucralose (includes Splenda brand)
  • Saccharin (includes Sweet’N Low brand)
  • Acesulfame Potassium (includes Sunett, Sweet One brands)

Besides artificial sweeteners, today’s grocery store shelves are also lined with substitutes for butter, salt and fat. In all of these cases, the substitute is not necessarily the better option.

Here’s the skinny on the top questions concerning artificial sweeteners, and the facts you need to know regarding other popular “fake” foods.

The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners

Can They Cause Weight Gain?
Many people use artificial sweeteners to cut their caloric intake, but the very opposite effect can occur. New research shows that artificial sweeteners stimulate taste receptors that sense sweetness in both the esophagus and stomach. Anticipating energy, the pancreas releases insulin, an important hormone for accumulating body fat. At the same time, chemicals are sent to the brain’s satiety center, which becomes confused as to whether or not the body is actually receiving calories. The result? You feel even hungrier and less full, which can lead to weight gain.

Are They Addictive?
Research on artificial sweeteners shows that they affect the same parts of the brain that deal with addiction. Artificial sweeteners are substances some people feel they can’t live without, a sign of an addiction. Second, artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than natural sugars, such as those found in whole grains, fruits and skim milk, and can actually reset your taste buds. The body then builds up a tolerance, which can cause overuse, another sign of addiction.