I love Diet Coke. Having one at lunch, with a sandwich and some veggies, somehow is just refreshing. But I’ve found that my acceptance of Diet Coke, and the artificial sweeteners that make it zero calorie, surprises people.
I get responses like “I won’t touch that stuff” or “I’ve heard that’s terrible for you” or “You drink that shit?”
It’s clear that sweeteners got a bad reputation. However, studies estimate that 75% of the population consumes them regularly (that’s right, they’re even in yogurt). So where does this criticism come from and is it justified?
The Saccharin Saga
Saccharin, most notably found in Sweet’n Low, gained popularity in the 1960’s as demand for a thin waist line increased. At that time sweeteners were widely believed to be a healthy alternative to sugar. But in 1970 a study was released linking bladder cancer in rats to saccharin consumption. Congress mandated that further studies of Saccharin be performed and that products containing it be labeled:
Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
For years saccharin carried that warning label on it, like cigarettes. But unlike studies linking smoking with lung cancer, that study was poorly designed. The lab rats ate more saccharin than a human could proportionately consume. And even then, only male rats had increased rates of bladder cancer, which they are physiologically prone to. Subsequent studies showed no relationship between saccharin and human illness, the FDA removed the warning label in 2000.
Currently there is no sound evidence linking artificial sweeteners to human illness.
Sweeteners and Satiety
In the last decade research has shifted to satiety and hunger, suggesting a link between sweeteners and weight gain.
Some scientists hypothesize that artificial sweeteners upset our brain’s pleasure centers. Eating sugar causes a spike in blood glucose levels that trigger dopamine release, making us feel happy. But because artificial sweeteners provide a sweet taste without raising blood sugar, the pleasure derived from eating sweet foods is decreased. Thus, we eat more in attempt to stimulate the happy feeling we missed by eating sweeteners.
Another theory suggests that satiety is only disturbed when we substitute food for zero calorie products. So, if you drink a diet coke instead of eating a snack, your body is going to respond by being hungry later in the day. This would happen with or without the sweetener. It’s simply how our bodies respond to skipping meals.
These are just two theories for why sweeteners are associated with weight gain. And there is contradicting literature that suggests sweeteners can be beneficial for dieters. If you enjoy the occasional low calorie soda, I recommend having it with a meal or snack to help balance any offset to satiety.
A recent Food Navigator article caught my attention as it focused on our demonization of artificial sweeteners. In it, scientists and public policy experts argued that sweeteners should be more commonly used to replace sugar. As a dietitian, that makes me cringe. Not because I believe them to be unhealthy. But because increasing their use would exasperate our already troubled relationship with food, causing us to eat more, well, shit.
People tend to latch on to simple remedies, or blame one food as a scapegoat for our health problems. When really, there aren’t terrible foods or magic bullets, just balanced and unbalanced eating.
Personally, I think artificial sweeteners are the same as most things in life. Great, if used in moderation.