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Artificial Sweeteners: A review of Sugar Substitutes

We are born with a desire for sweetness, and it remains with us throughout our lives. However, too much of a good thing can lead to problems such as obesity, cancer, and the health complications related to being overweight and obese.

Artificial sweeteners continue to be a controversial public health issue, and the research keeps coming. On one side, you have people that firmly oppose the use of artificial sweeteners because of the assumed link with increased risk for cancer and other diseases, while many continue to favor artificial sweeteners for their use to minimize caloric consumption from sweets and drinks.

Synthetic sugar substitutes produced through chemical processes result in artificial sweeteners that are hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose). The mechanism by which the human body and brain respond to these sweeteners is fairly complex.

Use of artificial sweeteners

The use of artificial sweeteners (non-caloric sweeteners) began with the need for cost reduction and continued on with the need for calorie reduction. It is interesting that artificial sweeteners were actually chemicals being developed for another purpose when researchers tasted it and found that it was many times sweeter than table sugar.

Fig 1. Artificial sweeteners and relative sweetness to table sugar.

The safety of artificial sweeteners is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and since the 1950s, artificial sweeteners have become a weight-loss wonder that has allowed the major population to consume diet drinks and sweets without the calories and health complications related to obesity. More and more products containing artificial sweeteners are released for consumers, to which people may not be aware of their presence in foods. As per The National Household Nutritional Survey, it is estimated 15% of the US population regularly uses artificial sweeteners.

The majority of the population tend to naturally choose artificial sweeteners over sugar or other caloric sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for the reason that they provide a large amount of rapidly absorbable carbohydrates, leading to excessive energy intake, weight gain, and metabolic syndrome.

As obesity rates grow, caloric sweeteners are cast as the culprits behind this epidemic, while artificial sweeteners are acclaimed by the public as “health food”. However, do artificial sweeteners really have a hand in reducing weight and minimizing obesity related problems?

The six FDA-approved artificial sweeteners, regulated as food additives, are saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, advantame, sucralose, and neotame. The facts about the safety of these artificial sweeteners are not clear cut. There tends to be a split in the medical community for being for or against their use.


Fig 2. Saccharin was first introduced in 1879 and is used in Sweet and Low®, Sweet Twin®, Sweet’N Low®, and Necta Sweet®.

An article from the FDA stated that a study from the early 1970’s found that saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in rats and mice and could therefore be carcinogenic for humans as well. Saccharin was then labelled as a potential carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health (NTP), and congress mandated further studies of saccharin and required a warning label to be printed onto all products containing saccharin. However, after more than 30 human studies, scientists saw that the results found in rats and mice were not seen similarly in humans. They attributed this to the difference of body weight compared to saccharin solution concentration . Consequently, the NTP officially delisted saccharin as a potential carcinogen in 2000 according to both the FDA and  


Aspartame was first discovered in 1965, but was not introduced into consumer foods and products until 1981 when it was approved by the FDA. Aspartame is a unique artificial sweetener being that it is made up of the amino acids aspartate and phenylalanine, both of which the body can break down and processes like normal food we eat.

Fig 3. Aspartame is a unique artificial sweetener that is made up of the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine.

Aspartame is one of the most well studied artificial sweeteners and has over 200 individual scientific studies supporting its safety. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, therefore the amount needed per serving is decreased greatly. Aspartame is found in over 6000 food products and provides a unique advantage compared to other artificial sweeteners in that it does not contribute to tooth decay. The bacteria in the mouth are unable to break down aspartame therefore no harmful acid is produced. Many people and researchers have claimed that artificial sweeteners have been linked with cancer. However, after over 25 years of testing there has been no real link or indicator that aspartame causes or increases your chances of getting cancer.

Acesulfame potassium

Fig 4. Chemical structure of Acesulfame potassium and the product made from it.

This calorie-free sugar substitute is used in Sunett® and Sweet One® products and was first discovered in 1967.  Below is the chemical structure of Acesulfame potassium  and the product made from it.

Acesulfame potassium (ACK ) aids patients with type 1 diabetes by providing super sweet taste without affecting glycaemic responses and without the high content of caloric sugars. However, the consumption of ACK can lead to weight gain and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes according to the article published in Food Additives and Contaminants journal. An article by BioMed Central stated that higher insulin concentrations are observed from the people who consumed non-nutritive sweeteners including ACK and lead to subtle increases of glucose stimulated glucagon-like-peptide-1 (GLP-1) . This GLP-1 helps with weight loss and enhances insulin secretion, which in turn benefits patients with type 1 diabetes. In 2005,  the National Institute of Health did a toxicology study for ACK for 9 months in mice and found that there is no association of  ACK to the carcinogenic activity. However, Wei-na Cong et al. conducted a study in 2013 which stated that exposure to ACK for 40 weeks could affect cognitive functions such as anxiety in mice. So far there is no evidence that these same effects occur in humans.


Sucralose was discovered in 1979 and is more commonly recognized as Splenda. It’s preferred for baking and has a long shelf life due to its relative stability under heat and a large range of pH conditions.

According to the FDA, the majority of the sucralose ingested is unable to be absorbed and therefore passes through the GI tract as feces. Only 11-27% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream where most of it is filtered through the kidneys into urine, while 20-30% of the amount of sucralose absorbed is actually metabolized. After reviewing more than 110 studies, the FDA approved the use of sucralose as a general sweetener in 1999. Since then, sucralose has been used in numerous food products around the globe.  


Fig 5. Neotame was produced in 1998, and the FDA approved it in 2002.


Over 100 studies were performed by the FDA to determine absorption, distribution, and excretion of Neotame in lab animals and humans. They found that Neotame does not accumulate in the body, and is excreted quickly among consumption. They also found that a high dosage of neotame consumed does not have a toxic effect on the body. Since neotame is a non-nutritive sweetener, it can help people who have trouble sustaining a healthy weight. It is also known to provide benefits to people with diabetes. Another study showed that there is no toxic results when consuming the proper dosage of neotame. According to Dr. Jyoti Bobde, who is a assistant professor in pharmacology in India, states that changes in food consumption, weight gain, and body weight can be a side effect of consuming Neotame. The studies have shown that Neotame is not toxic and has only one major side effect of consuming it.

So what’s the cost?

Despite what studies claim to prove or disprove about the health effects of artificial sweeteners, it is a unanimous opinion shared by all medical and health professionals to observe caution when substituting artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.

One concern attributing to this caution is the consumption of artificial sweeteners, for the reason that they may alter the way we taste food.

Artificial sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar/HFCS. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent consumption of these extremely intense sweeteners may limit our tolerance for more complex tastes. This means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find natural sweet foods such as fruits, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright revolting.

Although all six currently produced artificial sweeteners have met the FDA’s current safety standards for food additives, there’s no definitive guarantee that these products will never be found to pose health risks.

Our distinctive desire for sweetness may be compromising our ability to judge right from wrong. When we take a look at our diet, we find that nothing we consume does not come without a cost. This cost can be in the form of excess calories, fat, protein, or carbohydrates.

Is it wrong to believe that artificial sweeteners come at no cost?

Our operating principle must be “guilty until proven innocent”, when it comes to modern industrial foods and additives.

It’s our responsibility to be aware of what we are consuming and to protect our health.


  1. Kaitlin says:

    So you say in the end that the safety of foods is “innocent until proven guilty”, does that mean that you are for artificial sweeteners? I thought you provided useful information about the different kinds of artificial sweeteners and what studies have shown about each one, however, I am still a little confused about what exactly your stance is about this subject. Are you advocating for people to use artificial sweeteners, or are you just informing the public that there are isn’t evidence of any concerning affects of artificial sweeteners?

    • Omer says:

      Thank you for your comment. The purpose of the post was not necessarily taking sides, but rather introduce the reader to the controversies surrounding artificial sweeteners and advocate for further research into the topic.

  2. Christina says:

    Have there been comparative studies on weight gain/loss and artificial sweeteners vs sugars? Where there has been, are the effects consistent?
    Speaking of which, what effects exactly does Neotame have on metabolism?

    Who is it that has done the studies on the sugar substitutes? Institutes? Government? Third parties? What do they want the answer to be?

    • Omer says:

      There have been many studies showing the comparison of weight gain/loss in relation to the type of sugar consumed. However the results contradict each other, and that is why they were not included in the post.

  3. John says:

    This is an interesting topic to me as I know a few people who are very adamant that artificial sweeteners are bad for you. I guess when reading your blog post, I am not sure if you are for or against artificial sweeteners. I think based on the ending your opinion is more so that the public should educate themselves on artificial sweeteners and then make their own decision on whether they are good or bad? I thought it was interesting that you talked about how your taste can be affected by artificial sweeteners, and how you may be less satisfied with fruits and vegetables. One thing that I was wondering relating to that is: Does our tolerance build if we are using artificial sweetener, causing us to intake even more of the sweetener over time? If so, is it still a benefit if we are just taking in the same amount of artificial sweetener as we were sucrose?

  4. Maggie says:

    Hello group! I really liked your blog post. Your breakdown of each individual artificial sweetener was very insightful, and it also helped that you included information from the studies conducted for each. I found that added to the credibility of what you were saying. In final, I agree with your “guilty until proven innocent” concept. Because these sweeteners have only been introduced relatively recently in the grand scheme of things, nobody can be certain of the long-time effects. Time will tell…

  5. Ethan says:

    “hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar” – how is this measured?
    How do they know that artificial sweeteners have actually resulted in weight-loss? How was it studied? Links would be cool here.
    Is the reason for the majority choosing natural sugar really because it provides rapidly absorbable carbs? I feel like the general public is not quite aware of that fact or thinks about it.
    Good job pointing out the inconsistencies and uncertainty in terms of artificial sweeteners and their effects on our health.
    I love the depth of research done pertaining to each of the 6 major sweetners.
    Again, how is Aspartame “200 times sweeter than sucrose?”
    Cool stuff about how sweeteners can alter our taste senses, I did not know that!
    Very good overall post. Lots of well-thought out information and details.

  6. Kate says:

    This was definitely well written and I really liked reading more about artificial sweeteners. “Guilty until proven innocent” is a good and clever way to put it. Good job!

  7. Daniel says:

    Nice blog, you have a very interesting topic that is widely relevant to the public. Your breakdown of different artificial sweeteners is necessary, but I think is a little exhaustive. Besides that, I like your conclusion of placing responsibility on the reader to make informed decisions.

  8. Jeremy says:

    The post mentions that artificial sweeteners were found while doing research for another experiment, what was that experiment? Also, I noticed that while reading the post some of the pictures were not available to view. However, the post did a great job explaining the facts that we know about artificial sweeteners and didn’t seem to push strongly in either direction until the very end.

  9. Daniel says:

    Very interesting post! I personally find it alarming that so many of the artificial sweeteners cause negative effects in lab animals. Common sense would tell me that those effects would also persist in other organisms, including humans. It’s difficult to find causation, or even correlation, in humans due to all of the variables that we undergo. Unfortunately, I believe its only a matter of time before we start to see the same negative effects in humans.

  10. Kaiser says:

    This is a very interesting post and I like how you gave the information for the most common artificial sweeteners. For neotame, were there long term studies done to look at the possible effects after a period of time?

  11. Kristina says:

    Hey! Liked the way you approached the topic– made it a lot easier to read. Why did your group decide to cover this issue?

  12. Leah says:

    Very interesting topic! I really like how you broke down the types of common sweeteners and described the science behind each of them. I also thought it was good that you laid out the facts and arguments from both sides and gave the readers the option to choose for themselves.

  13. Faye says:

    This is very interesting topic! I really like how you went through each sweetener. Have you considered looking at how diets have changed since the introduction of artificial sweeteners? for instance, do obese people tend to eat healthier with fruits and vegetables or do they try to just limited their caloric intake with artificial sweeteners.
    On a side not, some of your images do not show up.

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