Artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, are chemicals added to some foods and beverages to make them taste sweet. 

Eating something sweetened with an artificial sweetener won’t by itself cause your glucose levels to spike. That’s because these artificial sweeteners don’t actually contain glucose; they just stimulate your sweet receptors so you get the taste without the calories.

And while that sounds great, studies suggest these sweeteners can have metabolic consequences, influencing your body’s ability to process glucose and insulin over time, and even contributing to obesity.

The science on these substances is extensive but complex and often contradictory. So let’s break down what we know and what you can do about it.

Common artificial sweeteners

There are three categories of non-sugar sweeteners: artificial, natural, and sugar alcohol. Artificial are the most familiar—as many as 40 percent of adults consume them—and the most studied. These include:

• Saccharin

(Sweet ’N Low)

• Sucralose (Splenda)

• Aspartame

(NutraSweet, Equal)

Acesulfame Potassium,

or Ace-K (Sweet One)

Natural sweeteners also provide taste without calories but are derived from plants or fruit. Stevia is the most prevalent, but you may also see monk fruit or yacon syrup.

Sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol are found naturally as well. Unlike the others, these have some calories, but no nutritional value, so they’re sweeter than sugar.

Will sweeteners raise my

glucose or insulin?

Although dumping a pack of Splenda in your coffee won’t immediately spike your blood sugar, researchers have identified a few ways they can have a metabolic effect on your body.

One has to do with your gut microbiome, the collection of bacteria, viruses, and fungi in your stomach that helps process food. We know there are links between bacteria composition and conditions like obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes. And we know that artificial sweeteners can affect the gut’s makeup. In one study, mice fed saccharin, sucralose, or aspartame for 11 weeks showed changes to the bacteria in their gut and elevated blood sugar. When researchers transferred the altered bacteria to other mice, those mice also developed high blood sugar.

The study suggested a similar effect in humans. Researchers found gut bacteria from people who ate a lot of sweeteners looked different from people who didn’t. And when they transplanted that sweetener-modified human bacteria into mice, those mice developed high blood sugar. What we don’t know is the exact way that sweeteners change the microbiome, and if that change in fact causes metabolic conditions.

Another notion is that these artificial sweeteners break the association between sweet taste and caloric consequences—a connection our bodies have spent millennia developing. So, for example, when something sweet hits your tongue, your body releases insulin (known as a cephalic response). If an artificial sweetener triggered that response, your body then has no glucose to process, which could lead to excess insulin. The actual mechanisms at play are much more complicated—involving multiple signaling pathways and hormones—and researchers haven’t yet found the smoking-gun link to metabolic conditions.

A more recent idea revolves around the fact that we actually have sweet taste receptors in our gut. Research shows that sweeteners can trigger these receptors and cause the release of certain glucose-related hormones, but it’s so far not clear that this causes a change in blood sugar in humans.

What’s more, artificial sweeteners may unfavorably alter metabolic hormones. Research in rats has shown that artificial sweetener consumption can cause a decrease in the release of hormone GLP-1, which is involved in appetite regulation and blood sugar. When GLP-1 is low, it can promote increased food intake and high blood sugar, and over the long term, may increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It’s also important to note that many studies in humans have shown an increase in body weight associated with artificial sweetener use.

What about natural sweeteners?

Here’s some potentially good news: Studies suggest stevia may not suffer these same drawbacks. In one, test subjects showed lower levels of glucose and insulin after a meal when they ate stevia first compared to people who ate sucrose or aspartame. Other research has even shown it can lower blood sugar in diabetics. (Though other studies disagree.) Similarly, sugar alcohols seem not to show negative metabolic effects—they can, however, cause digestive issues at high doses.

Make sure you are reading the ingredient labels of everything you consume, including mints, gum, and beverages because artificial sugars tend to linger there. Products that claim “zero-sugar” or “sugar-free” are signs of artificially sweetened products.

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