Non-Caloric Sweeteners

Non-Caloric Sweeteners,

Friend or Foe?


More and more people have turned to non-caloric sweeteners, in attempts to lose weight or at least, help prevent further weight gains. Questions have been raised about whether or not we are, instead, doing our bodies a disservice?

1.  Can non-caloric sweeteners cause weight gain?

Counterintuitive to what we might think, there is evidence that the use of non-caloric sweeteners may actually be associated with weight gain.  This was first shown in the San Antonio Heart Study. This study-documented weight changes over a 7-8 year period in people who drank beverages sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners compared to those who did not.  They found that those who drank on average 21 beverages sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners per week had about double the risk of being obese.  This was true regardless of the weight of the person at the start of the study.

Another study published in the January 2013 issue of the journal Appetite, found similar findings in rats. In this12 week study rats were fed plain yogurt sweetened with aspartame, saccharin, or sugar in addition to their regular rat chow.  What they found was that the rats that were given either saccharin or aspartame in their yogurt had an increased weight gain compared to rats that were given only sucrose in their yogurt.

2.  Can non-caloric sweeteners increase you risk for type 2 diabetes?

There have been multiple studies that have shown that the consumption of beverages sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners increased the risk for type 2 diabetes compared to non-consumers of beverages sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners.  This was seen even in participants who were of normal weight at baseline.

3.  Can non-caloric sweeteners cause an increase your appetite?

It is unclear why non-caloric sweeteners would cause weight gain and/or increase your risk for diabetes.  One of the theories is that non-caloric sweeteners are felt to increase your appetite.  Experiments have found that the sweet taste, regardless of its caloric content, increases your appetite.  Real sugar tells your brain that it has received enough calories, thus activating satiety signaling and telling your body that you are full.  Non-caloric sweeteners stimulate your appetite by the sweet taste, but your body keeps waiting for the calories to come. When the calories do not come, the sensations of hunger remain.

4.  Are non-caloric sweeteners associated with any side effects?

a. Sucralose (Splenda): has been shown to trigger migraine headaches. It has also showed to increase the incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases possibly due to the decrease in the amount of beneficial gut bacteria as the result of Sucralose consumption.

b.  Saccharin (Sweet’N Low):  has been reported to cause cancers at very high doses.  Between the years 1981 and 2000 the FDA required labeling to warn about possible carcinogenic effects.  Those warnings have since been removed.

c.  Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal): has possible side effects including dizziness, headaches, GI issues and mood changes.

Aspartame is broken down into phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%) and methanol (10%) in the body. The excess of phenylalanine from the breakdown of aspartame blocks the transport of important amino acids in the brain contributing to reduced levels of dopamine and serotonin.  Aspartic acid is the precursor to an excitatory amino acid glutamate.  Increased amounts of this and other excitatory amino acids results in increased free radical formations, increased oxidative stress and increased inflammation in the brain. This results in cell death.  These alterations seen are similar to those occurring in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.  Increased inflammation also linked to diseases such as fibromyalgia and other chronic pain syndromes.

It has also been reported that, if stored too long in high temperatures and in a pH above 6, aspartame produces a carcinogenic metabolite – diketopiperazine.  This breakdown product has been reported to cause tumors in the brain including gliomas, medulloblastomas, and meningiomas.

5.  Do ALL non-caloric sweeteners have potential side effects?

Stevia is a natural non-caloric sweetener that is isolated from the plant Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni.  So far no negative side effects have been reported with its use. Additionally, a study has found that participants who consumed products made with Stevia had lower total caloric intake compared to those consuming sucrose.  Consumption of stevia also lowered postprandial insulin and glucose levels compared to consumption of aspartame and sucrose.

The FDA and most industry-funded studies endorse the safety of these additives. I however have formed my opinion based on these and other studies that I have read.  Based on these studies I have come to the realization that non-caloric sweeteners may not be the best things to be putting into our bodies but if I were going to reach for one maybe a better alternative would be Stevia.


Anton, S. E. (2010). Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite , 55, 37-43.

Fowler, S. P. (2008). Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long-tem Weight Gain. Obesity , 16 (8), 1894-1900.

Rycerz, K. e. (2013). Effects of aspartame metabolites on astrocytes and neurons. Folia Neuropathologica , 51 (1), 10-17.

Shankar, P. P. (2013). Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update. Nutrition , 29, 1293-1299.

Swithers, S. (2013). Artifical sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism , 24 (9), 431-441.