Deb is a freelance writer and mom. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, toddler son and a sweet but neurotic corgi. Deb is a runner who has completed two marathons and countless other races. She is also a certified yoga instructor. She blogs regularly about parenting and life as a young urban professional mom at Urban Moo Cow.

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Should You Consume Aspartame?

Aspartame SodaI’ve always been suspicious of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, whose flavor is so bitter to me that I taste it in minuscule quantities undetected by the normal palate. I argue regularly with my family about whether they should drink diet soda and eat “Light” yogurt.

Far be it from me to base my opinions purely on taste — or on junk science. I set out to do a little research: Do artificial sweeteners do more harm than good?

The site PopSugar has a great break-down on the pros and cons of different artificial sweeteners. The most disturbing fact I learned was that Stevia, the new darling of sugar substitutes, is sold as a dietary supplement and is therefore not regulated by the FDA.

For the rest, the Mayo Clinic says sugar substitutes like aspartame (Nutrasweet), saccharine (Sweet n Low) and sucralose (Splenda) are safe:

“There’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women.”

So far so good.


The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners

I dug a little deeper, however, and found a post from the Harvard Health Blog (published by Harvard Medical School)  entitled “Artificial sweeteners: sugar free but at what cost?” that began to confirm my suspicions. It claims, in short, that sugar substitutes have three detrimental effects:

1. Since artificial sweeteners are stronger than naturally occurring sugar, they might change the way you taste food, leaving fruits and vegetables tasteless by comparison. As a result, you’ll be less likely to reach for healthy produce and more likely to stick with nutritionless junk food.

2. Artificial sweeteners may prevent you from associating sweetness with calories and thus lead you to ingest more. In fact, “Participants in the San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda.”

3. Artificial sweeteners may be addictive. “In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, most chose saccharin.” Yikes.


Taking the Long View on Aspartame

The New York Times Well blog also tackled the issue of artificial sweeteners last year in a piece called “Choosing a Sugar Substitute.” In it, Dr. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, concludes that diet sodas are less bad than sugar sodas based on available evidence. But he cautions that harmful effects sometimes take a while to show up:

“[I]f you smoke cigarettes, the lung cancer risk doesn’t go up for 30 years. And that’s a really powerful carcinogen. A lot of things don’t show up for several decades…. It took us about 90 years to discover [trans fat] was a big problem. It’s a bit sobering how long that took.”

Dr. Willett likens diet soda to a “nicotine patch” that should be used to help wean you off full-sugar soda, rather than an acceptable alternative.

I think I’ll stick with water.


Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

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Comments (6)

  1. Amy 05/04/2013 at 9:37 pm

    Hi Deb,
    We’ve been having this discussion at my house. My husband has been dealing with a health issue and thinks that aspartame is one of the causes. Just reading this one article raises enough questions to make me question everything about it. We’re still digging through to validate these reports, but seems highly likely that at least some of these claims are valid.. like aspartame being a carcinogen.

    • Deb Gaisford 05/05/2013 at 12:22 pm

      Hi Amy, Thanks for your comment. This article smacks of conspiracy theories and has no link-back references, so I’d have to do a lot more digging to verify it, but I agree that there is something to the idea that these artificial sweeteners might be doing more harm than good. I hope your husband figures out his health issues!

  2. Rebecca 05/02/2013 at 2:55 pm

    Why would you be disturbed that Stevia is not regulated by the FDA? First, Stevia is NOT an artificial sweetener, and if used correctly and in its natural form, has no negative effects whatsoever. Second, it is an HERB, we don’t WANT it to be regulated by the FDA. Or do you? I sure don’t, and all of the other “real foodies” out there don’t, either.

    “The site PopSugar has a great break-down on the pros and cons of different artificial sweeteners. The most disturbing fact I learned was that Stevia, the new darling of sugar substitutes, is sold as a dietary supplement and is therefore not regulated by the FDA.”

    • Christy 05/02/2013 at 3:42 pm

      I have stevia growing in my kitchen right now (Well at least trying to), next to the rest of my herbs. Regulating stevia would be the same as regulating basil, oregano or pepper. There is a giant misconception about stevia and I am rather annoyed by it! Stevia is an all natural plant!

    • Deb 05/02/2013 at 6:25 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Stevia, whose consumption has side effects like bloating, is processed and used as a sugar substitute and as such should be regulated just like the others. More to your point, though, not every “herb” is automatically harmless.

    • Deb Gaisford 05/02/2013 at 8:53 pm

      Thanks for your comment. (I responded earlier but it didn’t show up for some reason!) Stevia, which has plenty of possible side-effects, is processed and used as a sugar substitute; it should be regulated as such just like the others. More to your broader point, just because something is an “herb” doesn’t automatically make it safe.