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.

The theory between artificial sweeteners and weight gain extends to include addictive behavior. As the sweet receptors in the esophagus and stomach become “tricked” by the zero-calorie sugar substitute, you crave more food and become susceptible to addictive eating habits like binging or overeating.

Could They Be Causing My Bathroom Troubles?
Artificial sweeteners can cause you to go to the bathroom more often. They may cause the muscles in your bladder to become hyperactive – forcing you to urinate more frequently. Even one packet might be enough to cause you to urinate more frequently than normal. This can eventually wear out the bladder, increasing your risk for urinary tract infections and urge incontinence.

Recent reports are also linking specific sugar substitutes you eat every day to major digestive problems including diarrhea, cramps, gas and bloating. They are specifically called sugar alcohols, which are calorie-reduced sugar substitutes that include sorbitol and malitol, which are found in “sugar-free” gums, candy and baked goods.

Are They Linked to Diabetes?
As the sweet receptors in your esophagus and stomach are “tricked” by the zero-calorie substitutes, your pancreas is tricked into sending a false spike of insulin that can lead to insulin resistance. This can lead to diabetes. Also, since artificial sweeteners cause your body to crave more food, you can also put on weight, which further increases your risk for diabetes.

In addition to diabetes, artificial sweeteners may be contributing to a nationwide epidemic of metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes-inducing insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and too much fat around the waistline. Whether you’re diabetic or not, limit yourself to no more than 2 servings of artificial sweeteners per day. (A serving size equals 1 sweetener packet or 1 diet soda.)

Can They Cause Cancer?
When artificial sweeteners like saccharin were first marketed, some animal studies showed an increased rate of cancer in animals. However, the FDA has done due diligence in their research for these sweeteners, and no evidence exists that moderate use in humans can cause cancer. However, according to a landmark report issued by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), the evidence that excess body fat increases the risk of developing cancer is much stronger now than ever before. The connection isn’t clear, but these cancers include cancers of the colon, kidney, pancreas, esophagus and breast.

Naturally Sweet Alternatives

Instead of artificial sweeteners, try one of these natural alternatives.

  • Honey: Unlike white table sugar, honey is a complex food. One teaspoon contains 25 other compounds including proteins, amino acids and trace minerals.
  • Raw Buckwheat Honey: This darker version of honey is much less processed and refined that light-colored regular honey. It isn’t strained or heated, so it retains many disease-fighting nutrients and antioxidants. Try about 1 tablespoon a day.
  • Agave: A distilled sweetener derived from the blue agave cactus, agave has a low glycemic index.
  • Stevia: This non-caloric sweetener comes from a plant and is all-natural. However, beware: There are a ton of stevia products sold with extra additives as some companies blend it with other sweeteners.

Other Popular Food Substitutes

Here’s the rundown on four other popular food substitutes.

Butter vs. Margarine
Unlike butter, margarine is made of vegetable oil and contains zero cholesterol. But not all margarines are equal, and some are worse for you than butter.  As a rule of thumb, avoid more solid margarines; they often contain trans fats, which increase the risk of heart disease.

As an alternative to butter and margarine, choose olive oil, one of Dr. Oz’s anti-aging superfoods.

“Homemade” Oil Spray vs. Non-Stick Spray
Non-stick sprays made from different oils come in pressurized containers, so you’re not just getting oil but added chemicals. Make your own by filling a spray pump bottle with olive, walnut or other healthy, monounsaturated oils.

Fat vs. Olestra
Olestra is a fat substitute found in snack items like potato chips. Although it takes the fat out of foods, it can also cause extreme GI side effects like gas, cramping and even anal leakage. The next time you’re craving a crunchy snack, try a handful of almonds or walnuts, loaded with healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Table Salt vs. Potassium Chloride

People with high blood pressure often reach for salt substitutes. Many contain potassium chloride, which can be harmful, especially for people with kidney disease. To reduce your sodium intake, try sprinkling dry or fresh herbs on foods for added flavor.

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