Artificial sweeteners as the name suggests, are sweet to the taste, but do not contain any calories, therefore being marketed as a replacement for sugar. Artificial sweeteners are not limited only to consumption in your cup of tea or coffee, they are widely used in diet fruit and fizzy drinks, confectionary, processed foods, including baked goods, canned foods and jams, as well as in some dairy products.
The prolonged ingestion of artificial sweeteners may cause the body to change metabolically and therefore become dysfunctional. Why might this be so? From 1977 to 2001 Americans doubled their consumption of sweetened beverages and at the same time the obesity rate skyrocketed. Can these two supposed separate issues have some correlation?
Despite the fact that soft drinks do not contain sugar, the sweet taste of the sweetener sends a signal to the brain to think that it is getting sugar, which triggers the cephalic phase insulin response (CPIR). In other words even though there was no ingestion of actual sugar, the sweet taste causes the body to produce insulin in anticipation of a rise in blood sugar. A study conducted in 2008 concluded that “A significant increase of plasma insulin concentration was apparent after stimulation with sucrose and saccharin. In conclusion, the current data suggests that the sweeteners - sucrose and saccharin activate a cephalic phase insulin release even when applied to the oral cavity only.” (Just et al.)
The cephalic phase insulin response leads to artificially high levels of insulin and with no sugar to process, the extra insulin reverts automatically to its secondary function of fat storage, and muscle growth inhibition. Over time a negative cumulative effect is seen on the individual’s metabolism. Consequently, the consumption of diet fizzy drinks and other artificially sweetened products has been associated with making people more fat, not less fat!
In addition to triggering the CPIR, artificial sweeteners used in diet drinks do not provide the same level of satisfaction that fresh fruits or whole-food sweeteners such as Stevia and Agave syrup do. In fact artificial sweeteners increase your craving for sugar and therefore the need to drink more diet fizzy drinks, thus forming a vicious circle of craving sugary foods and drinks, leading to more sweeteners, and overeating all pushing you towards weight gain and ultimately obesity.
Once the body (and brain) becomes addicted it is difficult to recognise other signals produced by the body for wholesome nutrition, leading to depletion of adequate nourishment to fuel growth, replace cells, and provide energy to responds to your environment, and go about the normal daily routines. In fact, soft drinks leech calcium from the bones, lower bone-density and contribute to the formation of osteoporosis. Diet drinks which contain zero or only minute levels of nutrients are frequently used in place of healthy drinks and foods. By consuming them you are replacing nourishment that you would gain from healthy foods, fruit and fruit juices with something that is empty of nutrition, and at the same time affects your metabolism, therefore how you react to and handle stress, as well as overall health.
As if this final insult is not enough? Artificial sweeteners used in soft drinks are neurotoxic chemicals which have adverse affects on the nervous system. Depending on sensitivity, this might appear to have no affect at all. However, it is the cumulative affect over time, that builds and causes metabolic changes.
While your brain requires a fairly constant supply of blood sugar glucose in order to function properly, constantly eating refined sugars and drinking sweetened drinks does not support a healthy metabolism. On the contrary, researchers at the Salk Institute in California found that high glucose levels resulting from quick, easy sugar intake slowly but surely damages cells everywhere in the body, especially those in the brain, ultimately affecting attention span, short-term memory, and mood stability. Excessive refined sugar can block membranes and thereby slow down neural communication, eventually damaging neurons, increasing free radical inflammatory stress on the brain and increasingly making it harder to think clearly.
Who benefits? Philosophically there might be a good argument? Personally, I struggle to find it!
Aubele Teresa. (2011). Why a Sugar High Leads to a Brain Low. Available: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prime-your-gray-cells/201110/why-sugar-high.... Last accessed 6 May 2017.
Just, Tino, Pau Hans W., Engel Ulrike, Hummel Thomas. (2008). Cephalic phase insulin release in healthy humans after taste stimulation?. Available: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019566630800411X. Last accessed 6 May 2017.
Yance Donald (2013). Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism. Vermont: Healing Arts Press. 290-314.