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The pros and cons of zero-calorie sweeteners

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In 1963, Sweet N’ Low—better known as saccharin—made its debut in grocery stores around the U.S. 700 times sweeter than sugar and with no calories, the small pink sweetener packets pack quite the punch. Today, Sweet N’ Low has impressive competition in the zero-calorie sweeteners aisle, now referred to as high-intensity sweeteners, including: 

  • aspartame, sold under the brand names Nutrasweet and Equal

  • acesulfame potassium, sold under the brand names Sunett and Sweet One

  • sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda

  • neotame, sold under the brand name Newtame 

  • advantame

Even though these sweeteners help people cut back on added sugar, the science around consuming them long term and how that impacts your weight is still developing. Here’s what these sweetners mean for your sweet tooth—and your health. 

Helpful, Harmful, or Neutral?

While these sweeteners are advertised as zero-calorie, the jury is still out on their effects. For instance, although high-intensity sweeteners may help people cut calories as a short-term weight loss tool, there is still not enough evidence to prove their long-term effects. 

Here’s the data: Over the short term, one to three months, high-intensity sweeteners support at least three pounds of weight loss. Other studies show that after 6 months or more, an individual's body mass index (BMI) did not change at all. Bizarrely, people who use zero-cal sweeteners show a slight increase in their BMI, waist-to-hip ratio (which care providers use to gauge the risk of conditions like heart disease), and increased characteristics of Type 2 diabetes after 5+years.  So, what’s the best way to think about high-intensity sweeteners? Neutral—as the saying goes, “everything in moderation.”

Trick or cheat?

Many people use zero-calorie sweeteners to satisfy a sweet tooth while avoiding sugar. Here’s the crazy thing: they may actually make us crave more sweets. Sugar substitutes contain more concentrated sweetness than table sugar. And while your sweet tooth may enjoy it, your body will not.  

Experts classify zero-calorie sugar substitutes as non-nutritive sweeteners—and they are just that: non-nutritive. As you crave and consume more, you miss out on nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains). The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) both recommend cutting sugar as an important goal to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease—a more important goal than cutting FDA-approved zero-cal sweeteners. 

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