As concerns over sugar and obesity rise, a variety of sugar alternatives have become available that address America’s sweet tooth and expanding waistlines.
These non-nutritive sweeteners offer much of the joy of sugar without the calories or metabolic effects (like increasing blood glucose and insulin after consumption). They can be many times sweeter than sugar but contribute only a few or no calories. Many are made naturally, usually extracted from plants, while others are made synthetically. There are currently six artificial and two natural sweeteners on the market. Many are available in granular form or in the familiar packets you see at restaurants.
There are currently six artificial NNS and two natural NNS that are approved by the FDA for use in the food industry. They are shown in Table: Non-Nutritive Sweeteners on the Market along with their relative sweetness to table sugar (sucrose) and acceptable safe daily intake levels (FDA, 2018).
Acceptable Daily Intake – Represents the amount of a substance that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without any appreciable health risk based on the highest intake that does not give rise to observable adverse effects. These are referenced on the table in the far 3 right columns for safe intakes.
Simplified Terms – The amount you can have every day of your life without negative health impact
A meta-analysis of 15 randomized controlled trials reported that substituting NNS for sugar modestly reduced body weight, fat mass, and waist circumference among people who were overweight and obese (Miller & Perez, 2014). Subsequent interventions have found that drinking 24 ounces of diet soda per day leads to significantly greater weight loss and less hunger over a 12-week period than drinking 24 ounces of water (Peters et al., 2014) and resulted in maintaining greater weight loss over a year-long follow-up (Peters et al., 2016).
So, would I recommend diet soda over water?
Certainly not, but these studies show that it is an improvement over sugar-sweetened beverages and does not hinder weight loss.
Regarding the role of NNS in weight loss, it is important to emphasize that NNS do not provide calories and can help satisfy sweet-tooth cravings. Studies have shown them to be especially valuable for people who consume a lot of sweet foods to serve as a bridge toward reducing their consumption. However, if an individual does not feel the need to consume NNS, then there is no need.
What about digestive health?
Gut microbiome impact studies for ACE-K were performed on mice and the dosing utilized was 37.5 MG/KG/D for 4 weeks. This is over double the ADI of 15 MG/KG daily as noted in the table of sweeteners. The studies show changes in gut microbiome and weight gain (specific to male mice only). Used a high dose and had a small sample size. Further, rodent studies don’t always transfer to humans. There are more than 90 studies that demonstrate ACE-K is safe for use.
There have been some newer studies that show a possible increase in impact of having artificial sweeteners when fasting (empty stomach) and it impacting digestive health, but as with many of the studies on digestion and microbiome it is too early to confidently make recommendations based on the available data.
I’ve heard they cause weight gain and increases in appetite?
This is derived from what is known as reverse causality. The people seeking out or partaking in zero calorie sweeteners / dietary beverages are likely to also be obese or overweight. There is no current experimental literature that associates the use of artificial sweeteners directly with causing weight gain that is not an observational study. Many people may be affected behaviorally (health halo effect) in that they justify other food choices and overindulgence based on the fact they are choosing an artificially sweetened beverage rather than a standard one.
Study showing possible benefit to weight loss goals / dietary adherence when allowing dietary beverages: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22301929/
Where do energy drinks fit into this discussion?
For the zero-calorie energy drinks the most common sweeteners used are sucralose and Ace-K. Regular energy drinks are sweetened with sucrose and present an added area of consideration based upon that.
It is unlikely the individual ingredients are harmful at the dosages provided, but it is possible they could interact in a manner that produces negative health effects. There is not any strong evidence towards that to provide as a data point (Reference examine article). For healthy, active adults there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly harmful about consumption of energy drinks in moderation. If anything, the high caffeine / high sugar could be problematic.
Main two potentially harmful ingredients: Sugar and Caffeine
- Sugar: Unnecessarily drives caloric intake higher (empty calories) without providing any nutrition. Could lead to problems down the road with weight control, which is why the diet versions are recommended and safe based on the science provided.
- Caffeine: One needs to be aware of overall daily caffeine intake and how energy drinks factor into that. This is especially true if you consume coffee, pre-workouts, or products marketed as fat burners / diet suppressants. For healthy adults with no medical issues, it is generally agreed that 300 mg – 400 mg of caffeine can be consumed daily without any adverse effects.
In short, the artificial flavorings or “chemical cocktails” within energy drinks are of minimal concern compared to the sugar or caffeine contained in them.
Studies consistently show that non-nutritive sweeteners facilitate weight loss when they replace sugar. They can serve as a way for dieters to reduce caloric intake without depriving themselves of sweets. While they’re not a panacea, as alternatives to sugars, the ability of non-nutritive sweeteners to enhance a weight management program make them a powerful tool.
Harmful status for any food item (natural) or man-made product (synthetic) is dependent upon the person consuming it. One must consider age, body weight, and overall health status in addition to how much they are consuming (dose). As the saying goes, “The dose makes the poison.” Even water can be toxic if consumed in too great a quantity in a set time frame. Additionally, apple seeds contain cyanide.
For me personally, I am comfortable with one energy drink (Monster Zero) a day and a 12 oz. diet soda (Cherry Coke Zero, Diet Dr. Pepper) as an addition to my own nutritional strategy because it helps me to maintain adherence with my current fat loss plan.