The Lowdown on Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Healthy or Dangerous?
As a registered dietitian, I am an advocate for complete foods, items like whole butter, natural peanut butter, plain yogurt with fresh fruit and, yes, even real sugar. Some of these foods aren't necessarily the healthiest, but when it comes to fueling your body, real always beats artificial. (Check out what the YOU Docs have to say in Q&A on Healthy vs. Unhealthy Foods.)
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substances that are often more intense than table sugar. Their package ingredients are listed as a variety of things, including aspartame, neotane, saccharin, sugar alcohols and sucralose. The FDA classifies artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, calling them "Generally Recognized As Safe," or GRAS. Although The National Cancer Institute deemed it untrue, several studies have linked artificial sweeteners with bladder cancer in rats. Other findings have linked artificial sweeteners to migraines.
So while artificial sweeteners may not be dangerous, I believe real food is always a better choice, especially when it comes to artificial sweeteners.
Where does this leave dieters who enjoy these no-calorie options? Regular consumption of artificial sweeteners can actually work negatively against weight management, because they increase cravings for sweet foods. If your goal is to eat healthier, instead of overdoing artificial ingredients, it's better to eat real sweets in moderation. But this doesn't have to mean white, refined sugar, which is not great for our bodies either. Great alternatives are natural sweeteners like honey or agave.
Athletes do need sugar and carbohydrates to perform, and natural fuel is the best kind. (Read how to put this advice into action in How to Make Flavorful Meals Without Excess Fat, Sugar and Sodium.)