Artificial Sweeteners Gaining Increasingly Bad Press—and for Good Reason

Story at-a-glance

  • Despite being promoted for weight loss, foods and beverages with artificial sweeteners have never been proven to help weight loss. In fact studies that look at this actually find artificial sweeteners promote weight gain
  • Research has also demonstrated that aspartame worsens insulin sensitivity to a greater degree than sugar, posing a hidden health threat to diabetics who follow the recommendation to switch to diet sodas to manage their condition
  • To combat the bad publicity, Coca-Cola has resorted to fake “infomercials” that look like public service announcements touting the “scientifically proven” safety and benefits of aspartame for those struggling with their weight
  • The most comprehensive and longest human study looking at aspartame toxicity found a clear association between aspartame consumption and non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and leukemia
  • Ditching ALL sweetened beverages can go a long way toward reducing your risk for chronic health problems and weight gain. Your best, most cost effective choice of beverage is pure filtered tap water


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Soda and other sweetened beverages have been pinpointed as some of the primary culprits in the obesity epidemic.

Recent research1 also suggests that regular soda consumption may increase aggressive behavior in young children. The study found that each incremental increase in daily soft drink servings resulted in a corresponding rise in aggression scores.

In an obvious effort to save the beverage industry, companies like Coca-Cola have rolled out glossy ads touting the myth that you simply need to exercise more to burn off the extra calories. This "conventional wisdom" has been firmly debunked by science. Not all calories count equally...

Coca-Cola has also resorted to fake "infomercials" that look like public service announcements touting the "scientifically proven" safety and benefits of aspartame for those struggling with their weight.

For this, I think they ought to be fined for fraud by the FTC, as research2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 has repeatedly demonstrated that artificial sweeteners actually make you gain equal or more weight than regular sugar. In fact, research has shown that diet sodas may actually double your risk of obesity.

Furthermore, recent research has also demonstrated that aspartame worsens insulin sensitivity to a greater degree than sugar, making it a hidden threat to those trying to manage their diabetes.

Artificial sweeteners of all kinds have been found to wreak havoc in a number of different ways. Aspartame, for example, has a long list of studies indicating its harmful effects to you and your family, ranging from brain damage to pre-term delivery.

Unfortunately, most public health agencies and registered dietitians in the United States still recommend these toxic artificial sweeteners as acceptable and even preferred alternatives to sugar, which is at best confusing and at worst seriously damaging the health of those who listen to this well-intentioned but foolish advice.

Your Brain Is Not Fooled by Non-Caloric Sweetness

According to a report published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism,8 diet soda drinkers actually suffer the same exact health problems as those who opt for regular soda, including excessive weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.9, 10

Part of the reason why artificial sweeteners don't work as advertised (such as help you lose weight and manage your insulin) relates to the fact that your brain is simply not fooled by sweet taste without accompanying calories. Reporting on such research, FoodNavigator.com11 recently wrote:

"Published in The Journal of Physiology,12 the research findings suggest that our pleasure in consuming sweet solutions is driven in great extent by the amount of energy it provides—revealing that greater 'reward' in the brain is attributed to sugars when compared to artificial sweeteners."

Scientific American13 also recently ran an article explaining the science behind this phenomenon. In a nutshell, when you eat something sweet, your brain releases dopamine, which supplies you with a jolt of pleasure.

Your brain's reward center is activated. The appetite-regulating hormone leptin is also released, which eventually informs your brain that you are "full" once a certain amount of calories have been ingested.

In contrast, when you consume something sweet but non-caloric (i.e. an artificial sweetener), your brain's pleasure pathway is still activated by the sweet taste, but there's nothing to deactivate it, since your body is still waiting for the calories. As a result, you may end up overeating.

Drs Oz and Roizen Weigh in on Artificial Sweeteners

In a recent article in The Oregonian,14 Drs. Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen discussed these increasingly hard-to-hide issues as well.

"[E]ven with FDA approval, conflicting and often bothersome research about calorie-free sweeteners keeps bubbling to the surface. The latest? Evidence from human studies shows that artificially sweetened drinks are associated with weight gain in adults and teens, and raise risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Some data even suggest that these zero-calorie sips could double the risk for metabolic syndrome, a huge risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. Other recent reports show consumption is linked to higher rates of depression," they write.

The sad fact is, Americans in particular are addicted to sweet flavors, which appears to trigger a complex set of biological systems, pathways, and mechanisms that in the end leads to excess weight gain—whether that flavor comes loaded with calories or not.

In the end, the research tells us that artificial sweeteners are nothing more than a pipe dream when it comes to being a dieter's aid, because contrary to what the marketing campaigns claim, low- or no-calorie artificial sweeteners are more likely to help you pack on the pounds than shed them.

When You See 'Aspartame,' Think 'Formaldehyde'

Of the various artificial sweeteners on the market, aspartame is perhaps one of the most problematic. At least it has the most reported adverse effects. In fact, aspartame is the number one source of side-effect complaints to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with over 10,000 complaints filed and over 91 symptoms documented that are related to its consumption.

Besides that, there's been persistent suspicions that aspartame may contribute to the development of more serious diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, among others.

According to Dr. Russell Blaylock, a retired neurosurgeon who has written three books about the health dangers of excitotoxins (which includes aspartame and MSG), Dr. Adrian Gross, the FDA's toxicologist who examined the aspartame research initially presented to the FDA for approval by G.D. Searle, was "absolutely shocked" at the evidence showing "an enormous increase in tumors, particularly brain tumors."

More recently, a lifetime feeding study published in 201015 found that aspartame induced cancers of the liver and lung in male mice. It was also carcinogenic in male and female rats. Another study of great importance was published just last year. It's the most comprehensive and longest human study— spanning 22 years — that has ever looked at aspartame toxicity. The study evaluated the effect between aspartame intake and cancer, and they found a clear association between aspartame consumption and non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and leukemia.

What might account for such disturbing findings?

The industry has fervently held fast to the myth that aspartame is harmless, claiming there's "no biological explanation" for the health problems reported by so many after consuming aspartame. But this is where they're wrong. According to toxicology expert Dr. Woody Monte, a biological and scientific explanation for aspartame's pathway of harm does indeed exist, and it's related to the effects of methanol and formaldehyde, both of which are extremely toxic.

How Aspartame Can Wreak Havoc with Your Health

Aaspartame is primarily made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The phenylalanine has been synthetically modified to carry a methyl group, which provides the majority of the sweetness. That phenylalanine methyl bond, called a methyl ester, is very weak, which allows the methyl group on the phenylalanine to easily break off and form methanol.

You may have heard the claim that aspartame is harmless because methanol is also found in fruits and vegetables. However, in fruits and vegetables, the methanol is firmly bonded to pectin, allowing it to be safely passed through your digestive tract. Not so with the methanol created by aspartame; there it's not bonded to anything that can help eliminate it from your body. That's problem number one...

Problem number two relates to the fact that humans are the only mammals who are NOT equipped with a protective biological mechanism that breaks down methanol into harmless formic acid. This is why animal testing of aspartame does not fully apply to humans. According to Dr. Monte:

"There is a major biochemical problem here. Methyl alcohol is known now, and has been known since 1940, to be metabolized differently by humans from every other animal.'"

As explained by Dr. Monte, in humans, the methanol ends up acting as a Trojan horse, and here's how. Both animals and humans have small structures called peroxisomes in each cell. There are a couple of hundred in every cell of your body, which are designed to detoxify a variety of chemicals. Peroxisome contains catalase, which help detoxify methanol. Other chemicals in the peroxisome convert the formaldehyde to formic acid, which is harmless, but, again, this last step occurs only in animals. Human peroxisomes cannot convert the toxic formaldehyde into harmless formic acid.

So to recap: In humans, the methyl alcohol travels through your blood vessels into sensitive areas, such as your brain, that are loaded with ADH, which converts methanol to formaldehyde. And since there's no catalase present, the formaldehyde is free to cause enormous damage in your tissues.

Symptoms from methanol poisoning are many, and include headaches, ear buzzing, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, weakness, vertigo, chills, memory lapses, numbness and shooting pains in the extremities, behavioral disturbances, and neuritis. The most well known problems from methanol poisoning are vision problems including misty vision, progressive contraction of visual fields, blurring of vision, obscuration of vision, retinal damage, and blindness. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that causes retinal damage, interferes with DNA replication and may cause birth defects.

What's the Healthiest Beverage You Can Drink?

Sweetened beverages, whether it's sweetened with sugar, HFCS, naturally-occurring fructose, or artificial sweeteners, are among the worst culprits in the fight against obesity and related health problems, including diabetes, heart and liver disease, just to name a few. Remember that sweetened beverages also include flavored milk products, bottled teas, and "enhanced" water products.

In my view, I believe it is irresponsibly negligent to flatly ignore the potential impact of artificial sweeteners on our skyrocketing disease rates. Telling people to consume a toxic agent "in moderation" is just reprehensibly negligent. Ditching ALL of these types of beverages can go a long way toward reducing your risk for chronic health problems and weight gain.

Your best, most cost effective choice of beverage is filtered tap water. I strongly recommend using a high-quality water filtration system unless you can verify the purity of your water. To be absolutely certain you are getting the purest water you can, you'll want to filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink. I currently use a whole house carbon-based water filtration system, and prior to this I used reverse osmosis (RO) to purify my water.

You can read more about water filtration in this previous article to help you make a decision about what type of water filtration system will be best for you and your family. Since most water sources are now severely polluted, the issue of water filtration and purification couldn't be more important.

Ideal Water Sources

Besides purification, I also believe it's critical to drink living water. I recently interviewed Dr. Gerald Pollack about his book, The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor. This fourth phase of water is referred to as "structured water" and is the type of water found in all of your cells. This water has healing properties, and is naturally created in a variety of ways.

Water from a deep spring is one excellent source of structured water. The deeper the better, as structured water is created under pressure. There's a great website called FindaSpring.com16 where you can find a natural spring in your area.

But you can also promote structured water through vortexing. I personally drink vortexed water nearly exclusively as I became a big fan of Viktor Schauberger who did much pioneering work on vortexing about a century ago. Dr. Pollack found that by creating a vortex in a glass of water, you're putting more energy into it, thereby increasing the structure of the water. According to Dr. Pollack, virtually ANY energy put into the water seems to create or build structured water.

My own R&D team is working on a careful study in which we use vortexed water to grow sprouts, to evaluate the vitality and effectiveness of the water. We believe an ideal vortexer could be one of the simplest ways to improve people's health and we hope to bring our own version to market in the next few years.

Tell Coke They're a Joke!

Obesity is a serious public health problem in the United States, and you are being sorely misled by companies pretending to have a solution that, in reality, only worsen the problem.

Coke is a Joke Infographic Preview

I strongly urge you to let the Coca-Cola Company know how you feel by telling them to stop their deceptive marketing of soda products.

Join me in taking a stand against false advertising and let your voice be heard. If you're on twitter, send a tweet to #CokeCEO to let the Coca-Cola Company know you are not happy with their deceptive advertising. If you're on Facebook, please share your thoughts with them on their Facebook Page. Please also email the Coca-Cola Company to let them know how you feel!

Tell Coke They're a Joke via FacebookTell Coke They're a Joke via Email

Having a Hard Time Giving Up Artificial Sweeteners?

Just like sugar, artificial sweeteners can be addictive. As discussed earlier, they trigger enhanced activity within your brain's pleasure centers, just like sugar, yet fail to provide actual satisfaction. This separation of the taste of sweetness from caloric content means that when you consume artificial sweeteners, your brain actually craves more of it because your body receives no satisfaction on a cellular level by the sugar imposter.

To break free, be sure to address the emotional component to your food cravings using a tool such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). More than any traditional or alternative method I have used or researched, EFT works to overcome food cravings and helps you reach dietary success. If diet soda is the culprit for you, be sure to check out Turbo Tapping, which is an extremely effective and simple tool to get rid of your soda addiction in a short amount of time.

If you still have cravings after trying EFT or Turbo Tapping, you may need to make additional changes to your diet. My free nutrition plan can help you do this in a step-by-step fashion. As for a safer sweetener option, you could use stevia or Lo Han, both of which are safe natural sweeteners. Remember, if you struggle with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or extra weight, then you have insulin sensitivity issues and would likely benefit from avoiding ALL sweeteners.

Last but not least, if you experience side effects from aspartame or any other artificial sweetener, please report it to the FDA (if you live in the United States) without delay. It's easy to make a report — just go to the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator page, find the phone number for your state, and make a call reporting your reaction.


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