Health Q&A: Artificial Sweeteners

Why you should re-consider your addiction to low-cal and sugar-free foods

Q: Are artificial sweeteners unhealthy?

A: Aspartame and saccharin are two of the most frequently used chemical sweeteners in our food. They are used to make drinks diet, snack bars low-calorie, and sweet treats sugar-free. Artificial sweeteners are also found in yogurt, gum, breath mints, cereal, flavoured syrup for coffee and even vegetable cocktails. They are most easy to spot as the tabletop sugar alternatives Nutrasweet or Equal and Sweet’N Low. The benefit is that they keep calorie counts down and protect your teeth against the damage caused by sugar.

Both aspartame and saccharin are approved by Health Canada for use as food additives, however there is controversy about whether or not aspartame is connected to health issues, such as weight gain, insulin resistance and even cancer. Health Canada says assertions that aspartame causes cancer are unsupported.

Adrienne Shulman, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, says that even though a definitive link has not been found, her clients do experience sensitivities when they eat aspartame. “It can cause irritability, nervousness, insomnia, memory loss, and migraines,” she says. “Aspartame also destabilizes your insulin, which actually increases your desire for sweet things and that can cause weight gain.”

A recent study from Purdue University found that rats who ate foods made with artificial sweeteners later consumed more calories, gained more weight and put on more body fat than those who ate foods sweetened with table sugar.

“Since the studies are inconclusive we don’t know what amount of an artificial sweetener is needed to be toxic,” says Shulman. “But remember that they are in many foods so it can add up quickly.”

Cutting out artificial sweeteners to avoid the potential risk is up to you. If you’re concerned, check labels and choose foods without chemicals. Shulman recommends making small changes to your diet like avoiding diet drinks, skipping low-calorie snack foods and switching your gum. “Aspartame can quickly enter your bloodstream through your salvia so pick a gum that’s sweetened with xylitol. It’s a naturally derived sugar that won’t spike your insulin,” she says.