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Are artificial sweeteners killing you? No. Here's why.
Let's look at some crazy marketing ads from the 60s together. I licked my finger and it tasted good.
So, I think when James Schlatter accidentally discovered aspartame, he never expected to start one of the most divisive topics in nutrition history. “I licked my finger and it tasted good.” He later recalled.
The Sugar Industry went into overdrive. It struck a nerve that started a marketing warzone.
If you like diet soda or put Splenda in your coffee, then chances are you’ve had someone gasp and exclaim that you’re a heathen, in their eyes, for consuming straight-up poison.
So, are they right?
Will aspartame kill you?
Does it cause weight gain?
Let’s find out.
Back in the 1960s, people weren’t exactly concerned or educated enough about the effect sugar had on their health. It wasn’t until artificial sweeteners were introduced to the public, that they first started to actively question their intake.
This shift in mindset sparked a clusterfuck of bizarre marketing campaigns meant to show the “benefits of eating sugar.”
And I really mean that. A straight-up clusterfuck. We’ll get to that.
Sugar became touted as a vital strategy to create “pure” and “holistic” energy — while synthetic sweeteners were warned as energyless and harmful to consume for that reason.
Take, for example, this ad in 1966 featuring the extremely happy child, Mary.
From the ad copy, it sounds as if Mary is an endless source of energy. She arrived to class early, she’s active in student council, her team won, and she’s leaving to dance with her friends after school.
In the end, there’s a “note to mothers.“
Exhaustion opens the door a little wider to the bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait. Sugar puts back energy fast - Synthetic sweeteners put back nothing.
… Yeah, it’s good that we have a warning against the dangers of not giving your child enough sugar …
Though surprisingly (or not surprisingly, when you realized who paid for the marketing), sugar was somehow touted as an effective dieting strategy.
Women were advised to treat themselves before lunch as a way to — and I can’t make this up — control their appetites.
Few other fascinating headlines that came out of this fear-driven marketing campaign:
Are you getting enough sugar to keep your weight down?
Sugar can be the willpower you need to undereat.
YOU NEED SUGAR. (nice, very subtle).
Lisa needs a sugarless, energy-less soft drink like a kangaroo needs a baby buggy. (Lmao, what the fuck.)
SUGAR — a Builder of the West
How sugar helps the weight you lose stay lost
It’s not hard to see that the Sugar Industry was feeling extremely threatened by the discovery of Artificial Sweeteners.
The devil works hard.
But the Sugar Industry works harder.
To be fair, I think their commitment to this campaign wasn’t inherently wrong for its time — just misguided(?) (also read: greedy).
Sugar does convert into glucose, giving all things energy, and sugar on its own isn’t the cause of fat gain — except — it’s not going to be as useful in the context of a diet, as say, a no-calorie sweetener.
Side note: Despite its reputation, a single packet of Splenda does contain 4 calories per gram. Though, seeing as it’s 600x as sweet as sugar, the amount required to sweeten food is so small that the calories are near negligible. Making it, essentially, “zero calories.”
That said, some people still passionately insist that synthetic sweeteners directly cause weight gain.
This is my probably favorite argument. Mainly, because respecting the laws of thermodynamics, you’d have to consume a dangerous amount of diet drinks and risk water intoxication before it could have any effect on your weight.
Secondly, research disagrees with this entirely.
The 10 Week Study.
For 10 weeks, scientists divided 41 overweight men and women into two groups.
They were then instructed to consume at least a baseline amount of either sucrose or artificially sweetened supplements every day during the study.
The minimum was included to ensure the subjects would consume at least this amount and not any less.
At the end of the study, the sucrose group saw an increase in:
Meanwhile, the sweetener group saw significant decreases in all the above markers.
Correlation does not imply causation.
Fast forward a bit and many studies have further supported this.
Stating that by replacing caloric drinks with noncaloric drinks, subjects did not see significant increases in body weight, fat mass, or anything worth noting.
See, our systems are in a constant state of flux. And bodyweight is defined by energy balance.
Since artificial sweeteners themselves don’t produce energy, any weight increase associated with them would have to be coming from other correlated factors.
That’s the thing, though.
People tend to forget correlation does not imply causation.
For example, they’ll often justify eating something traditionally “unhealthy,” as long as they supplement it with a diet soda. When instead, this often leads them into eating more than they would have in the first place.
See, the average person just … isn’t very good at estimating their calorie intakes. Especially if tracking or intuitive dieting isn’t a skill they’ve already practiced.
Additionally, starting to drink diet soda is a common trait found in those attempting to counteract weight gain.
If the lifestyle that initially caused the weight gain is not addressed in the first place, then diet soda really won’t help.
I think the study referenced earlier from 2012 provides strong support for this.
Seeing as their overweight subjects only saw a loss of around 5lbs over a period of six months, even with the monthly intervention of diet counseling.
Lastly, there’s some evidence that synthetic sweeteners can affect whether we feel sated or flavor sensitivity.
Essentially, things that taste sweet but offer no caloric value will only partially activate our reward pathways. And when that reward system is only partially satisfied, we are then hardwired to seek out more calories.
This can potentially cause unintentional overeating for intuitive dieters (or those who simply don’t track their intake at all).
"Okay, but it still causes cancer!!!!?!"
Unless you’re a rat, you don’t have to worry about artificial sweeteners.
See, media sensationalism is fairly straightforward and the internet is a brilliant place to vent panic-driven rhetoric about… anything.
The data is often one-sided, though, and with a 24-hour news cycle, it’s vitally important for media outlets to hype as much fear about a topic as they can.
This leads to unfair and hysteric headlines that take scientific research entirely out of context.
In this case, a 2005 study found more leukemias and lymphomas in rats fed very high doses of aspartame.
And the public completely freaked out.
“Aspartame causes cancer. You’re all gonna die.”
These headlines don’t quite tell the full story though.
And while there is a dose-response relationship between aspartame and the prevalence of cancer, it’s important to remember that those rats were given doses between 8mg per pound all the way up to 10g per 1 pound of bodyweight.
Seeing as the average rat weighs around 400 grams or a little less than a pound – this means the rats were dosed an average between 1.6-2,000mg of aspartame. Every day.
That amount is up to 10 cans of Diet Coke for a tiny 1-pound rat.
Then if we apply the same numbers to a human — the average male weighing 180lbs would have been given a dose to the equivalent of between 2 and 2139 cans of Diet Coke every day.
OVER 2,000 CANS OF DIET COKE EVERY DAY.
Since then, the FDA has revisited its ADI recommendation for aspartame at 50mg/kg of body weight. (or the equivalent of 20 cans of Diet Coke for the average male). Based on a BW of 80kg.
If someone comes close to reaching the ADI limit, I would venture to say they have other issues to worry about than their artificial sweetener habit.
More importantly, as Examine.com points out, we are not rats.
[…] and a comparison between rodents and humans is completely unfair — especially in the case of aspartame.
While rodents and humans do share some metabolic similarities, the mechanisms our bodies use to process aspartame and other relevant compounds are different.
Methanol tends to be the chemical people lose their minds over, and yes, methanol can be hazardous and carcinogenic in high doses — however, the dosage is what really matters here. In fact, the amount of methanol in fruit far exceeds the amount you’d find in synthetic sweeteners, and neither can hurt you in the short term or long term.
In 2006, scientists from the National Cancer Institute took this a step further and looked at over 450,000 adults between the ages of 50-71 years old. After 5 years of intervention, results confirmed that subjects consuming aspartame-containing drinks did not have an increased risk of lymphomas, leukemias, or brain tumors compared to those who did not drink them.
Today’s contemporary science has approved aspartame for human consumption, “in more than 100 countries by hundreds of millions of people over the past 20 years, representing billions of man-years of safe exposure.”
Essentially, if synthetic sweeteners were killing us, we’d know by now because we’d have a lot of deaths linking back to aspartame.
But there isn’t.
That said, our relationship with food as a culture is complicated. And a highly emotional subject.
So when it’s referred to as an alternative, we tend to keep our guard up and remain skeptical.
It’s not easy for us to accept that our food may be a scientific innovation.
At least when it’s referred to as such.
There is a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, where individuals need to limit their intake or completely avoid aspartame entirely, due to its phenylalanine contents.
They’re likely more than well aware of this, though ;)
If you got this far, here’s a picture of Michael Scott pouring sugar into his diet coke as a thank you gift. Seriously, though, thanks for reading and supporting this newsletter.
References and Resources