Five common sweeteners and what they really do to your body

Over the past five to six years, a new sweetener has made its way into a variety of common foods. The name is neotame, or E961. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced in 2007 that it was safe to use in foods and soft drinks, an alternative to aspartame that was over 8,000 times sweeter than sugar.

But new research has shown that neotame may not be as benign as first thought. Last week, Dr. Havovi Chichger published a study in the journal Limits of nutrition which suggested it could potentially damage cells in the intestinal wall. These cells play an important role in digesting food, absorbing nutrients and protecting the body from microbial infections.

“Neotame was developed with the aim of being a more stable and sweeter version of the traditional sweetener,” says Dr Chichger, a researcher at Anglia Ruskin University who has studied neotame. “We became interested in neotame because it is very unusual: it is chemically similar to traditional sweeteners, but it is so intensely sweet in comparison: more than 100 times sweeter than sweeteners such as sucralose.”

With the EFSA recently announcing that it is investigating the safety of neotame, the study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the five artificial sweeteners below could be problematic for our health.

Let’s take a closer look at what we know so far.


Neotame has been subtly introduced into various products ranging from canned fruits, jellies, some carbonated drinks, dairy products and industrially manufactured cakes. It has become popular with manufacturers because it lacks the problematic aftertaste that can be an issue with some sweeteners, while remaining stable even when exposed to production temperatures of up to 450°C.

However, Dr. Chichger’s research found that when intestinal cells were exposed to neotame in a petri dish, 10 mM of the sweetener could actually be toxic to these cells, a dose that is within the acceptable daily limit as defined by drug regulators. Food Safety.

While it’s still unlikely that the average person would consume that much neotame in a day through food and drink, it appears that relatively low concentrations of the sweetener can still disrupt the microbiome in several ways, leaving consumers more susceptible to intestinal diseases and intestinal diseases . even blood poisoning.

“At concentrations that a person could very easily consume on a daily basis, our studies show a breakdown of the intestinal barrier and a shift of bacteria toward more harmful behavior, including increased invasion of healthy intestinal cells, leading to cell death,” says Chichger. .


Perhaps the most commonly used sweetener, found in products ranging from diet cola to breakfast cereals, ice cream, low-sugar yogurt and sugar-free chewing gum. Aspartame is 180 to 200 times sweeter than sugar and its main disadvantage is that it disintegrates and loses its sweetness when heated, limiting its usefulness in desserts.

However, since aspartame was first approved by regulators in the 1970s, it has been dogged by suggestions that it could be linked to health problems. In the mid-2000s, studies in laboratory rats suggested that high doses of the sweetener consumed over a long period of time could be linked to lymphoma and leukemia. Although the result was ultimately rejected, the findings of several epidemiological studies continued to raise concerns.

In 2022, an analysis of more than a decade of dietary data from 102,865 adults in France linked higher consumption of aspartame and another sweetener called acesulfame-K with several forms of cancer. Subsequent studies last year also linked high consumption of foods flavored with aspartame and other artificial sweeteners to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

A small minority of people may even develop acute neurological symptoms from consuming aspartame. Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex, has spent decades researching aspartame, and says it is believed to be a side effect of phenylalanine, an amino acid produced when aspartame is metabolized. “Based on the evidence I’ve seen, I think this probably affects no less than 3 percent of consumers, but no more than 10 percent,” he says. “The problems that emerge are things like headaches, blurred vision and, in a small proportion of cases, quite severe seizures. These people probably have difficulty dealing with what is essentially a fairly large pulse of phenylalanine in their bodies.”

Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K)

Acesulfame potassium was first approved in the late 1980s and has been used in combination with aspartame in Diet Coke since the mid-2000s, while it is also found in salad dressings and sauces, jams, jellies and marmalades, ice cream and other dairy products and even toothpaste and mouthwash.

Like aspartame and other sweeteners, it is speculated that the intense taste of acesulfame potassium could disrupt the body’s natural hormonal processes that regulate blood sugar levels, causing the release of excessive amounts of the hormone insulin, one of the causative factors in the progression to type 2 diabetes. One study suggested that it might even increase the amount of sugar absorbed by cells in the intestines, a possible mechanism for causing intestinal inflammation.

However, acesulfame potassium is often combined with other sweeteners to mask its bitter aftertaste, and according to Dr. Jotham Suez, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it is currently difficult to address some of these health concerns. to write to individuals. sweetener because many foods and drinks contain a mixture of these.

“At this point you cannot say that one sweetener is more harmful than another,” he says. “But there is evidence, which is not negligible, showing a possible causal link between consumption of foods and beverages containing these sweeteners and increased weight gain and disturbed glucose homeostasis, thus possibly increased blood glucose.”


Sucralose is also commonly used in combination with acesulfame potassium in foods ranging from condiments to sugar-free jams, fruit spreads, salad dressing, diet soft drinks and chewing gum.

Last year, a new study raised concerns about the sweetener among researchers at North Carolina universities who conducted experiments on human intestinal cells, suggesting that sucralose-6-acetate, a chemical in sucralose, may damage DNA, something that could increase levels of harmful could increase oxidative substances. stress and inflammatory molecules in the intestines.

But while one of the purported purposes of sweeteners has been to reduce the problem of excessive sugar consumption, which leads to weight gain, it appears that they themselves can actually alter our metabolism, especially when combined with our food ingredients.

Prof Dana Small, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada and one of the world’s leading experts on sucralose, conducted a groundbreaking experiment in 2020 showing that drinks combining sucralose with carbohydrates alter the brain’s responses and the metabolism on those carbohydrates changes, making them more vulnerable to weight gain.

“Our paper showed that sucralose in combination with the carbohydrate maltodextrin changes the brain’s physiological response to sugars quite quickly,” says Prof. Small.


This is the original sweetener, which was discovered back in 1879. Like aspartame, saccharin has been the subject of controversy over the years over allegations that it could be a carcinogen, following a 1970s Canadian study that linked the sweetener to bladder cancer in rats.

However, no clear evidence has ever linked saccharin consumption to bladder cancer in humans, and saccharin is currently found in many processed foods labeled as low-calorie, such as fruit juices, candies, jams, jellies, and cookies.

But as with other sweeteners, there are still major concerns that saccharin could disrupt the gut in several ways, with potentially greater consequences for our health.

At the same time, Dr. Suez predicts that some people are more vulnerable to the negative effects of sweeteners than others. With personalized nutrition technologies such as microbiome sequencing becoming increasingly popular with consumers around the world, he thinks the future could involve looking for signals in the gut microbiome that can indicate how sweeteners are affecting that person.

“As we try to think about the next step, we can try to really develop some algorithms to be able to predict who might benefit from sweeteners, because that person is not negatively affected by their consumption, and those who are “, he says.

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