In the quest for weight loss, many people replace sugar with artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes used to replace sugar. Some have been formulated from natural substances, such as herbs or even sugar. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are much sweeter tasting than sugar. Found in different colored packets at restaurants, these sweeteners are an attractive option since they contain no calories. They are used widely in processed foods such as beverages, baked goods, candies, and dairy products and can also be used in sweet treats baked at home.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved 5 artificial sweeteners:
  • Saccharin - Sweet N Low, Sweet Twin, and Necta Sweet
  • Acesulfame K - Sunett and Sweet One
  • Aspartame - Equal, Nutrasweet, and Sugar Twin
  • Neotame - Newtame
  • Sucralose - Splenda

The FDA has also approved two low-calorie sweeteners, Stevia and Tagatose (that's another article however!).

These sweeteners are all biochemically different and each has its own metabolic pathway. Studies vary with the type of artificial sweetener used. Since each one works differently in the body, outcomes vary and giving specific recommendations on artificial sweeteners as a group is a big challenge.

For positive outcomes as far as weight loss, many studies suggest that if artificial sweeteners are used with a weight loss program or plan, modest weight loss occurs. And overall they do help with blood sugar control in people with diabetes.

On the negative side, accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumers of artificial sweeteners may be at risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Rat studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may affect the gut in a negative way by disrupting blood sugar regulation and increasing risk for metabolic syndrome. Also of note is a study showing mothers who use artificial sweeteners during pregnancy may increase the risk of their child becoming overweight or obese.

Major organizations are cautious in recommending artificial sweeteners.  While the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends moderate use for weight loss and diabetes control, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association recommends caution in using artificial sweeteners. And the 2015 scientific report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee says: “There is insufficient evidence to recommend the use of low-calorie sweeteners as a strategy for long-term weight loss and weight maintenance. Since the long-term effects of low-calorie sweeteners are still uncertain, those sweeteners should not be recommended for use as a primary replacement/substitute for added sugars in foods and beverages.”

The bottom line: Artificial sweeteners can help with weight loss. But remember they aren't a magic bullet and need to be consumed in moderation.  Also remember, processed foods containing artificial sweeteners don't offer the same health benefits as whole foods, such as fruits (naturally sweet!) and vegetables.