Opinion: Does “zero calories” mean zero harm?


Stevia is a newly popular artificial sweetener (asavvyassistant/Flickr)

“Diet Coke, please.” “I’ll have a medium hot coffee with Splenda.” “If I get Halo Top I can have the whole pint!” How many of us have ever felt like we were making a healthy decision by choosing an artificially sweetened, low-calorie option over the full-sugar version? Unfortunately, health simply cannot be quantified by a calorie count. Although artificial sweeteners and plant-based sugar substitutes are often advertised as a smart weight-watching solution, there are too many risks associated with these substances and their effects to trust this assumption as fact. If zero calories and up to 20,000 times as sweet sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

We all know that a diet high in added sugars is not healthy. It can lead to elevated blood glucose and insulin levels and can increase the risk of problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Ergo, it seems both logical and favorable to swap these added sugars out for a sugar-free, low-calorie alternative that still satisfies your sweet tooth. Why not have your cake and eat it too? Well, a cake made with Splenda is no better than one that contains sugar; both have negative effects on your health.

For starters, of the over 6,000 different types of artificial sweeteners that are marketed in the United States, only six are labeled as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA: saccharin, acesulfame-k, aspartame, neotame, sucralose and advantame, which are all between 200 and 20,000 times as sweet as table sugar. However, this FDA approval is based on studies that claim that these additives are noncarcinogenic but do not consider other lurking dangers. Additionally, despite the rising popularity of plant-based sweeteners such as Stevia, the FDA has not found any of these “natural” low-calorie sweeteners to be safe.

Once you start using artificial sweeteners, it’s difficult to stop. One study on rats has even shown that the artificial sweetener saccharin may be more addictive than cocaine.

Over-consumption of artificial sweeteners seems to change our body’s reaction to sweets. For one, people tend to justify consuming more sugar through other means if they select an artificially sweetened beverage. They feel satisfied that they made a “good” choice, and thus don’t feel guilty about having a chocolate bar or a cookie with their diet soda. Additionally, the intense sweetness of these low-calorie additives can, over time, overload our sugar receptors, causing foods with less or no sweetness to taste bitter and unappetizing. This would discourage people from consuming healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Furthermore, repeated use of these artificial sweeteners may alter the body’s reception to sweetness. Sugar activates sweetness receptors, which signals to the body that blood glucose is going to rise and triggers a metabolic pathway to harvest its energy. However, artificial sweeteners activate these same receptors but contain no energy to be metabolized. Therefore, they may change the body’s pathways in response to sweetness, causing a rise in appetite and cravings for sweets and consequently a greater tendency to overeat.

Artificial sweeteners not only have a direct effect on consumers; they have also been found to pollute the water supply. Because many artificial sweeteners are not metabolized by the body and are instead passed through our waste, large amounts can end up in water treatment plants. Some types of sweeteners readily dissolve in water and are therefore difficult to extract, so they remain in the water supply. As pollutants, these sweeteners can make photosynthesis difficult for plants and harm marine life.

The truth of the matter is that there is simply not enough information about artificial sweeteners to truly deem them safe for consumption. What we do know about how these sweeteners transform our body’s natural mechanisms and contribute to pollution is enough reason to stay away. While it would be great to still be able to consume sweet drinks and foods without gaining any weight, that is just not very realistic. Instead of getting a false sense of security from artificial sweeteners, it is a better idea to primarily choose healthier foods that do not contain added sugars and enjoy sweets in moderation.

Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at veronica.eskander@uconn.edu.   

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