Artificial sweeteners: The bitter truth about their health risks

Artificial sweeteners, with their promise of guilt-free indulgence, have become a popular choice for those seeking a sugar alternative. However, recent research has revealed concerning effects on our health.


These synthetic substitutes, often much sweeter (in fact 500 times sweeter) than sugar, can confuse our taste buds, and disrupt our insulin response, digestive system and gut microbiome. Also, some of them such as aspartame are linked to brain tumours in animal studies. It's time to uncover the bitter truth behind these seemingly innocent additives and reassess their impact on our well-being.

Artificial sweeteners can and will (if used for a long time):

  • Spike your glucose/insulin the same as sugar does. Yep, diet Coke will trigger your insulin and cause weight gain in the same way as regular Coke.
  • Affect your digestive system and causes gastrointestinal discomfort, bloating and diarrhoea.
  • Alter the composition of our gut microbiome (our friendly bacteria) and are linked to conditions such as obesity, inflammatory bowel diseases, and mental health disorders.
  • Potentially cause of brain tumours.

So let's dive a bit deeper into this.

The insulin dilemma 

Despite their low-calorie content, artificial sweeteners can still trigger an insulin response, potentially leading to insulin resistance over time. This resistance hampers blood sugar regulation and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. This happens especially after the age of 40 when our ability to process sugar goes down due to hormone changes.

One of the primary reasons people turn to artificial sweeteners is to curb their sugar intake and manage blood glucose levels. However, these sugar substitutes may not be as benign as we previously thought.

Despite containing little to no calories, artificial sweeteners can still trigger an insulin response in our bodies. When we consume foods or beverages sweetened with these additives, our taste buds detect the sweet sensation, signalling to our brain that sugar is on its way. In response, our pancreas releases insulin to facilitate the expected rise in blood sugar levels.

So basically, diet Coke will trigger your insulin and cause weight gain in the same way as regular Coke.

Disrupting the digestive system 

Artificial sweeteners can confuse our digestive system, leading to increased hunger and overeating. They also disrupt the balance of our gut microbiome, potentially causing obesity, inflammation, and digestive discomfort.

Research has shown that artificial sweeteners can alter the composition and diversity of our gut microbiome. These changes can disrupt the symbiotic relationship between our bodies and the microorganisms, leading to a cascade of negative consequences. An imbalanced gut microbiome has been linked to various health issues, including obesity, inflammation, and even mental health disorders.

Furthermore, artificial sweeteners can interfere with the absorption of nutrients in our intestines. Some studies have indicated that these additives can affect the absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron, potentially leading to deficiencies over time. Moreover, the impact of artificial sweeteners on our gut can extend to the rate at which food moves through our digestive system, potentially causing gastrointestinal discomfort, bloating, and even diarrhoea.

The gut microbiome's role 

Artificial sweeteners alter the composition of our gut microbiome (our friendly bacteria), which can have far-reaching consequences.

For example, certain types of gut bacteria preferentially feed on dietary fiber and produce short-chain fatty acids that support our digestive health. However, artificial sweeteners can interfere with this process by altering the relative abundance of these beneficial bacteria. Instead, they can promote the growth of less desirable microbial species that thrive on sugar substitutes.

An imbalanced microbiome is linked to conditions such as obesity, inflammatory bowel diseases, and mental health disorders.

Sweetener aspartame and brain cancer

The prolonged consumption of aspartame can elevate the levels of phenylalanine and aspartic acid in the brain. These compounds can inhibit the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are known regulators of neurophysiological activities such as headaches, meningitis, strokes, dementia, encephalitis, etc. as well as the nerve and the muscle such as myasthenia gravis and motor neuron disease.

In a few animal experiments, aspartame has been linked to hematopoietic and brain cancers. The jury is out there when it comes to humans. But who wants to take a risk?

Under EU and Irish legislation, all food containing aspartame should be clearly labelled with the words “contains a source of phenylalanine”, on the label.

On a personal note: each time I have yoghurt with aspartame I got a headache - no fail!

Choosing natural alternatives 

Instead of relying on artificial sweeteners, opt for natural alternatives like stevia, honey, or maple syrup. These options provide sweetness along with antioxidants and minerals, supporting overall well-being when consumed in moderation.

To conclude; artificial sweeteners may offer a seemingly guilt-free solution to satisfy our sweet cravings, but they come with hidden risks. From disrupting insulin response and the digestive system to impacting the delicate balance of our gut microbiome, their negative effects on our health cannot be ignored.

By choosing natural alternatives in moderation, we can protect our well-being while still enjoying the sweetness we crave. It's time to unveil the truth and make informed choices for a healthier future.

Hope you find this helpful. Please contact me to send you my ‘Sugar Guide’ if you want to tackle your sugar intake head-on.

Health is wealth. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sutton, Surrey, SM1
Written by Angelika Cutuk-Short, MSc Functional Nutritionist / Hormone and Weight specialist
Sutton, Surrey, SM1

Angelika is a functional nutritionist. She specialises in weight loss, hormones and gut health. She helps peri/menopausal women discover the root cause of their health issues using functional testing. She helps women to look and feel healthier than ever, get that energy back and finally fit into those favourite clothes. Health is Wealth.

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