For decades now, artificial sweeteners have been used in food products (particularly “lite” and “diet” foods) as a means of cutting sugar intake without losing the sweet taste it provides. For better or for worse, mainstream media and certain nutritional zealots have really given artificial sweeteners a bad wrap, claiming that they cause cancer and weight gain.

First things first, there is no extant literature that I’m aware of that shows artificial sweeteners cause cancer in humans. In fact, all the human clinical evidence that’s available shows no reason to label artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame-K) as carcinogenic.

But do artificial sweeteners cause weight gain? While the data on this topic seems to go back and forth, the answer to this question isn’t so straightforward. Read on as we take a deeper look at artificial sweeteners and how they may impact weight management.

Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Gain: Cause or Correlation?

Some longitudinal research has shown that people who consumed higher amounts of artificial sweeteners had a propensity for gaining weight as opposed to losing weight. What these findings tell us is that there may be a correlation between artificial sweeteners and weight gain.

However, correlation is far from causation. In reality, you can make many unrelated variables correlate if you really want to. Many people are dubious when it comes to statistics. For example, according to surveys, 51% of people who read nonfiction novels tend to binge eat when they are upset, compared with 38% of people in general.

Does this mean that reading nonfiction novels causes binge eating in about 1 out of every 2 people? Absolutely not.

This is why you need to exercise caution when reading research, especially if all you do is skim over the abstract and jump to the conclusion section. Are you actually looking at the study design, what variables were controlled for, the demographic tested, and other factors that impact outcomes? If not, you can be easily mislead.

The issue with the data suggesting there is a correlation between artificially sweetened beverage intake and weight gain is there was no controlling for energy intake, exercise habits, or any of the like.

The only way we can decipher if artificial sweeteners actually cause weight gain is to run a well-controlled study analyzing body weight changes in two groups of people on isocaloric diets, with one group consuming artificial sweeteners daily and the other not consuming any artificial sweeteners. Longitudinal data just doesn’t cut it for these types of questions, unfortunately.

Is Stevia an Artificial Sweetener?

Nope. Stevia is a natural herb that contains extremely sweet, non-nutritive compounds known as steviosides. While many people may think stevia is artificial, it is in fact as organic as any other natural sugar.

What’s more, stevia is actually shown in research to increase insulin sensitivity and benefit gut health (while some artificial sweeteners may do the opposite). This is one of the reasons stevia is the sweetener of choice in MPA products.

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Do Artificial Sweeteners Increase Insulin Secretion?

There is no extant literature (that I’m aware of) that has shown artificial sweeteners increase insulin levels in humans. There is some murine (rodent) research that shows Ace-K (acesulfame potassium) stimulates a mild release of insulin when infused.

Before you jump to any sort of conclusion, I want to remind you that you’re not a rodent and you (hopefully) don’t inject artificial sweeteners. Moreover, the dose those rodents were taking was the human equivalent of drinking more than 30 12-oz cans of diet soda per day...so yea, your insulin levels will be fine.

There is a vast body human clinical research examining the impact artificial sweeteners have on the endocrine system, with no conclusive evidence suggesting any significant ramifications. It’s kind of crazy to think, because nearly every time I tell someone I like to drink diet soda or  sugar-free Monster energy drinks they basically scoff at me, saying those beverages are “super unhealthy” and that I’m going to get cancer.

Where is the evidence that this is the case? It's just not there, and trust me, I’ve looked!

Naturally, you might be wondering about that longitudinal study referred to earlier in this article showing a correlation between weight gain and artificial sweetener consumption. Again, the issue with that data is the lack of control they had over the subjects diets and lifestyle factors. There’s simply way too many variables at play to conclusively say the artificial sweeteners are what caused the weight gain.

Furthermore, consider that many people who are overweight or obese eat way too many calories; if their doctor tells them they have type-2 diabetes and need to lose weight, they start guzzling diet soda by the gallon (and keep gaining weight from all the food they eat). That’s another all-too-common scenario that would easily skew data on artificial sweetener consumption and body weight.

This begs the question, “Is there anything bad about artificial sweeteners?” I probably sound like a spokesperson for Splenda thus far, but I assure you I’m being impartial. Now, let’s dive into the not-so-promising aspects of artificial sweeteners.

Do Artificial Sweeteners Cause Cravings for Sweets?

The main argument people like to make against artificial sweeteners is that they may increase cravings for sweet drinks and sweet foods by stimulating the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls hunger).

Whenever you ingest a food or drink that is sweet, your body may respond by increasing dopamine levels, which then goes on to stimulate reward-driven behavior (such as eating more sweets).

Normally, if you eat or drink something that has calories and a sweet taste, your body will start to secrete satiety hormones, such as leptin and cholecystokinin (CCK). However, in the case of non-nutritive sweeteners, there are no calories being ingested so your body might not increase leptin (thus, you may continue to crave sweets). This is mostly a working theory at this point, as the mechanisms remain to be elucidated (if this is in fact the case).

In instances where artificial sweeteners are used to flavor something like protein powder or an  amino acid supplement that contains calorie (albeit not from carbohydrates), there should be no issue with cravings as certain amino acids promote satiety.

For example, the essential amino acid L-phenylalanine promotes the secretion of cholecystokinin (CCK) from the intestines, which then communicates with your brain to tell you you’re feeling full. Exogenous ketones work in a similar manner. This segues to the next section which talks a little more about artificial sweeteners in dietary supplements.

Are Sugar-Free Supplements OK?

In general: Yes.Pretty much all pre-workout formulas and powdered supplements out there contain sugar-free sweeteners these days. The good news is you can consume these without fear that they will impact your cravings in a negative manner (for the most part).

For example, the exogenous ketones in KETOxygen are well-known to blunt appetite by increasing CCK and inhibting ghrelin (an appetite-stimulating hormone). Likewise, the essential amino acids in PharmGrade will promote satiety and help keep your cravings for sweets at bay. These options are much healthier than drinking diet soda all the time, and are great supplements to have on hand when calorie intake is limited.

Artificial Sweeteners: Key Takeaways

Given the correlational findings between weight gain and artificial sweetener consumption, many people will be quick to conclude that things like diet soda and sugar-free foods are inherently bad for weight loss (and health). However, when you look deeper into the research on artificial sweeteners, you find that they do not increase insulin, nor do they negatively impact other metabolic biomarkers. In fact, stevia, which is technically a natural sugar-free sweetener, may do just the opposite (by enhancing insulin sensitivity).

There is ongoing research on whether or not artificial sweeteners adversely affect the gut microbiome, which could be an interesting topic for a future blog post once more data is available.

All in all, artificial sweeteners don’t cause type-2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome. There is weak evidence that they may increase cravings for sweets when consumed in large amounts (especially from diet soda and similar drinks).

Tips to Follow

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  • If using supplements or eating foods containing sugar-free sweeteners, stevia and sucralose are the best options (these are the only sugar-free sweeteners used in MPA products).
  • Limit your intake of diet soda (but some is certainly okay).
  • Replacing sugar-free drinks and sugar-free foods with their sugar-based counterparts is not any healthier or better for your longevity. In other words, if you have to choose between “real” Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew, choose the latter.