No sugarcoating it: Artificial sweeteners aren’t healthy

They are in many food products as well as toothpaste, throat lozenges and sugar-free gum.

When the news came out from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer that aspartame was a possible carcinogen, there was a collective gulp of anxiety from the sugar-free soda crowd. Then another report, from another WHO agency countered it had no plans of altering its acceptable daily intake limit, which is between 9 to 14 cans a day for a 154-pound adult.

Dr. Debra Bell, a UW Medicine family medicine doctor, and co-director of education for the Osher Center for Integrative Health, looked at this back and forth with a mixture of bemusement and concern.

To her, all this is beside the point.

Eating any food with artificial sweeteners is bad for your health, she says, and she advises her patients to stay away from these sweeteners in their diet whenever possible.

“It’s always a personal decision, but I think it should be an educated decision,” said Bell.

People often don’t realize that artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, are in many of the food and products they use. Artificial sweeteners are used in diet soda, of course, but also toothpaste, throat lozenges, sugar-free gum and low-fat yogurts. In total, about 5,000 foods and drinks use aspartame. Often ingredient labels will not use the name aspartame. Finally, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose, sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol might not be recognized by most consumers.

And the health impacts of artificial sweeteners go beyond possibly causing cancer. Studies have shown links to artificial sweeteners having negative health effects with the heart, brain neurons, and the microbiome and may be linked to irritable bowel syndrome.

But much of that data comes from animal studies, Bell said. There have been few studies on humans and the impacts of artificial sweeteners, she said.

Most of the data with aspartame revolves around weight gain and diabetes. Some data has shown that artificial sweeteners in fact, cause people to feel hungrier rather than less, because the tongue tastes sweet, but there is no rise in glucose levels within the body.

“There is messaging to the brain that something tastes sweet,” she said, “but there is no physiologic bump in glucose and that interferes with the body’s messaging on hunger, or to stop feeling hungry.”

“We know that artificial sweeteners do not reduce calorie intake, and now there is pretty sound data in humans showing that it is not effective for helping with weight loss,” Bell said.

In May, the WHO advised against consuming artificial sweeteners as a weight-loss strategy, since they have not been found to reduce body fat long-term. 

Data has also shown that artificial sweeteners interfere with the microbiome, which is again tied to weight gain, diabetes and depression, she noted.  The artificial sweetener - erythritol – was linked in one study to an increased risk of heart attack.

Other studies have indicated that metabolites, or substances produced during a metabolic process, within aspartame interfere with the neurotransmitters in the brain. Those suffering from migraines are warned away from these sweeteners. Finally,  studies have looked at links to stroke and dementia.

So, bottom line, “for people who don’t have diabetes or some kind of significant blood sugar dysregulation, I recommend they don’t use artificial sweeteners,” she said.

And regular cane sugar? Is this now the retro “new black” for sweeteners?

Um, no.

“We have to learn about nutrition and taste, which doesn’t involve sweet,” she said. “We need to look to other foods and seasonings which allow us to enjoy our foods in positive ways without having sweet as a flavor.”

She suggests cooks use maple syrup, honey, molasses, applesauce, or fruit concentrate for sweetening foods. As for sodas, there are brands on the market now with are naturally sweetened, with monk fruit, stevia, or fruit juice. There’s nothing wrong with having a sweet snack, she said.

“But by that, I mean, not every day, not every meal; it should truly be a treat,” she said.

This news item was written by Barbara Clements - 253-740-5043,

Please see broadcast-ready downloadable resources

For details about UW Medicine, please visit

UW Medicine