The Truth About Artificial Sweeteners

Lee Smith Nutrition

I am always honest – so i’ll completely admit I regularly consume products that contain artificial sweeteners. I find it easier to stick to my daily calorie goal (as drinks containing artificial sweeteners are generally lower than 10 calories) and quite frankly, still water generally bores me. That’s not to say I never drink water. Upon waking most mornings I will drink a pint before leaving the house, drink water when I am sitting in lectures, coaching private clientele or coaching my youth soccer teams then before bed I’ll usually drink a pint again. But I definitely like to drink low sugar, artificially sweetened beverages too. I’d often hear from other fitness professional “OMG you’re drinking Pepsi Max? There’s a whole load of shit in that! Cancers etc. It tricks your body in to thinking that it’s taking on sugar so you become addicted. They are also made from pesticides!” I’d often reply by saying – bullshit. I have never thought that artificial sweeteners are that bad. I mean, they’re fine… right?

What is an artificial sweetener?

There are currently 5 artificial sweeteners, or Nonnutritive Sweeteners (NNS) as the science and nutrition researchers like to call them. These are saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame-K and neotame (1). There is also an intense sweet herb extract known as stevia, which is often used in limited applications. Although researchers began investigating NNS over a century ago, it was only until diabetes and obesity became a national concern that NNS was marketed and initiated for regulatory approval in common diets (1). Several governing nutritional bodies accepted NNS’ and legalised their consumption in humans (see table 1 below).

NNS overview


Acceptable Daily Intakes and Cancer

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) equivalents to be 18-19 cans (1 can = 12 oz, or 355 mL) of diet cola for aspartame, 9-12 packets of sweetener for saccharin, 30-32 cans diet lemon-lime soda for acesulfame-K, and 6 cans of diet cola for sucralose (1). That’s to be in the acceptable range. Who in their right mind would be drinking 19 cans of diet cola in a day! I mean, if you are then you should probably drink a little more water. For the regular person, having a diet coke 3-5 times a day is not going to hurt you. Or else it would not have been given approval by these governing bodies! Further research has also investigated the carcinogenic effect of NSS such as aspartame. After investigating 10 studies, it has been concluded that aspartame has no effect on the rates or likelihood of cancer in rodents (15). So feel free to enjoy diet sodas without the fear of developing cancer (unless you’re planning on drinking 50 cans a day).

Effects on Appetite

Now what if having NNS’ caused other problems, like enhancing sugar addictions or causing the body to respond the same as if you had ingested sugar. Well, investigations included using water and chewing gum with added NNS to see if it increased the hunger in the participants when compared to normal water and chewing gum without added NNS. It has been found numerous times that the groups who ingested the added NNS did have increased hunger levels (2, 3, 4). Rsearchers believed that the sweetness of NNS enhanced postingestive hunger. However, four years later in 1994, Mattes and his team created a similar study but used salt instead of NNS in soup and found the same result. Researchers now believed that the foods with additives (in these cases the studies with the NNS and Mattes study with the salt and soup) increased hunger because they were more palatable – aka tasted better (5). More investigations provided further evidence that actually, the type of NNS or even using an NNS in general did not increase hunger when used in conjunction with similar sweet, energetic, palatable foods (6, 7, 8). Even NNS ingested through nasogastric tubes or capsules had no effect on hunger levels (1). In fact, two studies found aspartame actually decreased hunger (9, 10) but further investigation is warranted to make this conclusive. Further reviews also concluded that NNS have no effect on appetite (11, 12).

I’ve heard other fitness professionals also say “even if it’s not bad for you, you’re giving in to the bodies desire for sweet sensations, that surely cannot help when an individual is looking to control their diet and thus lose weight?” This statement does have some merit, initially. There are receptors in the intestine, analogous to sweet taste receptors (TR1s) in the oral cavity, that increase glucose transport via rapid glucose transporter type 2 (GLUT2) insertion into enterocyte cell membranes when activated by sugar and NNS (13). aspartameBut as already stated, NNS appears to have no effect on your appetite. So although your body thinks it’s getting sugar when you ingest NNS, continued use of eating and desiring sugar after NNS may be more of a psychological craving, rather than physiological. But it should be noted, existing evidence does not support nor refute a role for NNS in enhanced palatability on reward motivated feeding (1). If this reward feeding was effected by NNS then we should see increases in an individual’s bodyweight over a long duration of time. In 1997, a sample of 163 adults participated in a 3-week run-in, 16-week intervention, 1-year maintenance, and 2-year follow-up on assessing the long term effects of aspartame on body weight. At the end of the intervention, there was no difference in weight loss between groups using and avoiding aspartame, but the former group better maintained the loss during the subsequent 2 year (14). Again, long term, there doesn’t appear to be a connection with NNS and individuals craving higher energy intakes and thus putting on more weight due to NNS use.


The evidence suggests that NNS or artificial sweeteners are safe when consumed within the Acceptable Daily Intake – and with aspartame being one of the most common, if you’re drinking less than 19 cans of diet coke a day, you’re more than fine. Now I’m certainly not saying – everyone should drink sweeteners! Drinking a beverage that aids nutritional RDA maintenance, such as real fruit juices and protein shakes, would be a much better option for those looking to increase their macro and micronutrient intake. But what I am saying is this – if you do see someone drinking a pepsi max or coke zero, refrain from telling them that it’s going to give them cancer, that they are drinking pesticides and that they are fuelling their sugar addiction still. Because it’s not… In fact, I would much rather my private weight loss clients drink a NNS drink than give in to a sugar-filled soda and add empty calories in to their diet.

  1. Mattes, R. D., & Popkin, B. M. (2009). Nonnutritive sweetener consumption in humans: effects on appetite and food intake and their putative mechanisms.The American journal of clinical nutrition89(1), 1-14.
  2. Blundell, J. E., & Hill, A. J. (1986). Paradoxical effects of an intense sweetener (aspartame) on appetite.The Lancet327(8489), 1092-1093.
  3. Rogers, P. J., Carlyle, J. A., Hill, A. J., & Blundell, J. E. (1988). Uncoupling sweet taste and calories: comparison of the effects of glucose and three intense sweeteners on hunger and food intake.Physiology & behavior43(5), 547-552.
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  7. Drewnowski, A., Massien, C., Louis-Sylvestre, J., Fricker, J., Chapelot, D., & Apfelbaum, M. (1994). Comparing the effects of aspartame and sucrose on motivational ratings, taste preferences, and energy intakes in humans.The American journal of clinical nutrition,59(2), 338-345.
  8. Maone, T. R., Mattes, R. D., Bernbaum, J. C., & Beauchamp, G. K. (1990). A new method for delivering a taste without fluids to preterm and term infants.Developmental psychobiology23(2), 179-191.
  9. Rogers, P. J., Pleming, H. C., & Blundell, J. E. (1990). Aspartame ingested without tasting inhibits hunger and food intake.Physiology & behavior47(6), 1239-1243.
  10. Rogers, P. J., Keedwell, P., & Blundell, J. E. (1991). Further analysis of the short-term inhibition of food intake in humans by the dipeptide L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine methyl ester (aspartame).Physiology & behavior49(4), 739-743.
  11. Blundell, J. E., & Green, S. M. (1996). Effect of sucrose and sweeteners on appetite and energy intake.International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders: journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity20, S12-7.
  12. Benton, D. (2005). Can artificial sweeteners help control body weight and prevent obesity?.Nutrition Research Reviews18(01), 63-76.
  13. Mace, O. J., Affleck, J., Patel, N., & Kellett, G. L. (2007). Sweet taste receptors in rat small intestine stimulate glucose absorption through apical GLUT2.The Journal of physiology582(1), 379-392.
  14. Blackburn, G. L., Kanders, B. S., Lavin, P. T., Keller, S. D., & Whatley, J. (1997). The effect of aspartame as part of a multidisciplinary weight-control program on short-and long-term control of body weight.The American journal of clinical nutrition65(2), 409-418.
  15. Mallikarjun, S., & Sieburth, R. M. (2013). Aspartame and risk of cancer: A meta-analytic review.Archives of environmental & occupational health, (just-accepted).

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