In Depth

Artificial sweetener debate: is it really bad for you?

Despite a new study linking them to diabetes, scientists still can't agree on artificial sweeteners

Consuming artificial sweeteners could increase the risk of developing diabetes, a controversial new study has found. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel discovered that the sweeteners disrupted healthy microbes living in the gut, causing a rise in blood pressure.

"Our findings beg reconsideration of the massive, unregulated use of these substances," according to lead researcher Dr Eran Elinav. However, not everyone is in agreement. “This new report must be viewed very cautiously,” Stephen O’Rahilly, director of the Metabolic Diseases Unit at Cambridge University told the Guardian, “as it mostly reports findings in mice." 

Over a quarter of UK households buy food or drink containing artificial sweeteners, yet scientists do not agree on whether or not they are a dangerous chemical or a healthier alternative to sugar.

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sorbitol are used in diet drink and food in the UK and can be hundreds of times cheaper than sugar to produce. An animal study at Harvard University revealed that saccharin, a popular sweetener in the US, is actually more addictive than cocaine.

So, are they safe?

Artificial sweeteners have been linked to a long list of serious health concerns such as cancer, strokes and high blood pressure.

But, according to the UK's Food Standards Agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the NHS and Cancer Research UK they are safe to consume.

All sweeteners approved for use in the UK have passed rigorous testing and were found not to be harmful to humans. "Studies on artificial sweeteners have found that they do not increase the risk of cancer," Cancer Research UK says.

However, others argue that these studies are unable to reveal the long-term effects the chemicals will have.

Does that mean they are good for you?

Well, yes and no. Some studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can help prevent tooth decay, control blood sugar levels and reduce calorie intake, therefore helping people to lose weight and avoid diseases associated with obesity.

But sceptics warn that artificial sweeteners in diet drinks may actually do the opposite, and could promote weight gain.  "It is possible that people who routinely use them may wind up desensitized to sweetness" obesity researcher Dr David Ludwig told Harvard Health.

This could mean healthy foods may become unappetising by comparison. "The calories removed from the diet by the sugar-for-sweetener swap may sneak back in, in the form of refined carbohydrates and low-quality fat".

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