What Do Sugar Substitutes Actually Do to Your Body (and Do They Cause Cancer)?

Whether your vice is Diet Coke or sugar-free cookies and cakes, you’ve probably looked at these items and considered them to be virtually guilt-free. With so few calories (in some cases, no calories) and carbs per serving, it’s no wonder Americans have a serious love for sugar substitutes. And while we know what damage too much sugar can cause, the jury is still out on what exactly artificial sweeteners can do to our bodies.

Research is ongoing when it comes to sugar substitutes. So far, this is what we can gather about how they’re affecting our health.

Artificial sweeteners may make it easier to ignore healthy foods

A man works at a computer and eats fast food. unhealthy food: Burger, sauce, potatoes, donuts,chips.

A man working at his computer with junk food | Ferkhova/Getty Images

Harvard Health Publishing reminds us that both the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association have given the OK when it comes to using artificial sweeteners to replace real sugar for those watching their weight. But there are other concerns when it comes to diet. Dr. David Ludwig mentions those who are consuming lots of artificial sugar may feel that gives them a free pass to “replace lost calories through other sources.” If you’re drinking diet soda, for example, you may feel a lot less guilty about having an extra piece of cake.

Dr. Ludwig also believes that because of the intensity of artificial sweeteners, consumers may not want foods that are naturally sweet, like fruit — and they may also really learn to detest veggies. If you find you’re eating a lot of artificially sweetened goods and shunning fresh foods, keep this in mind.

Studies show they may disrupt the metabolism

Studies have tested whether sugar substitutes actually disrupt your body’s natural systems in any way. And according to a review of research from neuroscientist Susan E. Swithers, consuming artificial sweeteners regularly can disrupt your metabolism. Livestrong.com explains your metabolism involves thousands of chemical reactions to keep it humming at a normal pace. And the research shows there’s a chance these sugar substitutes could disrupt these reactions, causing your metabolism to slow. As you know, a slow metabolism can cause weight gain.

As far as weight gain is concerned, there’s also evidence to suggest sugar substitutes make you crave the taste of sugar even more. This can lead to overeating unhealthy foods, causing weight gain here as well.

Do they really cause cancer?

Woman adding artificial sweetener to her coffee

Woman adding artificial sweetener to her coffee | Highwaystarz-Photography/istock/Getty Images

Will sugar substitutes give you cancer? Considering they’re FDA-approved and given the OK by health organizations, chances are slim that they impact your cancer risk. The National Cancer Institute notes this question first arose when laboratory animals developed bladder cancer after given a mixture containing saccharin, an artificial sweetener. But when it comes to humans and cancer, no such link has been proven. And other FDA-approved sweeteners have no proven link to cancer, either.

So, should you avoid artificial sweeteners to be safe? There’s no consistent link to cancer as of now, so the choice is yours.

The safest sugar substitute

When it comes to sweeteners, some are better for your health than others. Cleveland Clinic notes Stevia is one of the best, as it’s extracted from a plant instead of completely artificial. It’s available in packets and drops for easy consumption. And if you’re looking for a substitute to bake with, Truvia, which is Stevia blended with a sugar alcohol called erythritol, is another good option.

Aside from artificial sweeteners, the publication also recommends using fresh or frozen fruit to naturally sweeten your foods. Adding a banana to your oatmeal or having berries with whipped topping for dessert are both nutritious choices — and you’ll also adjust to enjoy the natural sugars rather than the overpowering artificial product.

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