Artificial sweeteners seem like a godsend for losing weight.

Before their invention, the only way to satisfy your sweet tooth was to consume sugar, candy, soda, and other calorie-containing confections.

Thanks to the creation of artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium, aspartame, and sucralose, though, you can get your saccharine fix without the calories (and thus lose weight more easily). 

That’s the idea, anyway, but some people claim that artificial sweeteners indirectly stymie weight loss by making you crave sweets. Instead of satisfying, they say, artificial sweeteners create an itch that can only be scratched by consuming sugary, calorie-rich foods. 

Who’s right? 

In this article you’ll learn what artificial sweeteners are, the names of the six artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA, and whether or not artificial sweeteners make us crave real sugar or not. 

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners, also known as “sugar substitutes” or “high-intensity sweeteners,” are chemicals that are added to food to make it taste sweet and typically have few or no calories. 

Because of their chemical makeup, artificial sweeteners are far sweeter than table sugar (up to 20,000 times sweeter) which means you only need to use a very small amount to achieve a similar level of sweetness as sugar.

Artificial sweeteners can be classified into two categories: Nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners contain calories, while non-nutritive sweeteners contain few or no calories.

Foods that commonly contain artificial sweeteners are:

  • Baked goods
  • Candy
  • Canned foods
  • Cereals
  • Dairy products
  • Powdered dietary supplements
  • Puddings
  • Salad dressings
  • Sauces
  • Soft drinks
  • Chewing gum

Approved Artificial Sweeteners List

The names of the six artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are:

  1. Advantame: Advantame is approximately 20,000 times sweeter than sugar and contains no calories.
  2. Acesulfame potassium: Acesulfame potassium is included on ingredient lists as acesulfame K, acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K, and is sold under the brand names Sunett and Sweet One. It’s around 200 times sweeter than sugar, contains no calories, and is often combined with other sweeteners.
  3. Aspartame: Aspartame brand names include Nutrasweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar and contains 4 calories per gram.
  4. Neotame: Neotame is sold under the brand name Newtame, is 7,000-to-13,000 times sweeter than sugar, and contains no calories.
  5. Saccharin: Saccharin brand names include Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet’N Low, and Necta Sweet. It’s 200-to-700 times sweeter than sugar and contains no calories.
  6. Sucralose: Sucralose is sold under the brand name Splenda, is about 600 times sweeter than sugar, and contains no calories.

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Do Artificial Sweeteners Make You Crave Sweets? 

Because artificial sweeteners contain few to no calories, many people assume that they’re a savvy way to sate your taste buds without derailing your diet.

And while this can be true (several studies show that people lose more weight when they replace sugary fare with artificially sweetened alternatives), there’s some evidence that consuming artificial sweeteners too often may make you crave calorie-rich sweets.

To explain why this might be the case, we must start with a spot of evolutionary biology.

Because sweet foods tend to be an excellent source of energy for our bodies, we evolved a “reward system” that makes us enjoy eating them.

This reward system is called the mesolimbic dopamine system, and it works by releasing a burst of the hormone dopamine into our bodies whenever we eat sugar. This dopamine makes the experience pleasurable, and tells us that we should do it again because it’s important for our survival.

However, research shows that artificial sweeteners don’t activate our reward system in the same way that sugar does because they don’t deliver the hefty dose of energy (calories) the body expects from something so sweet. 

This means that whenever we consume food or drinks sweetened by artificial sweeteners, our brains are tricked into thinking that we need to consume more calories (often from calorie-dense, sugary food) to meet our energy demands.

A salient example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Southern California in which 74 participants attended three experimental sessions: one when they consumed an artificially-sweetened drink, one where they consumed a sugar-sweetened drink, and one where they drank water.

After consuming each drink, the participants looked at pictures of high-calorie foods while the researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to measure activity in the parts of the brain associated with appetite and food cravings. The researchers also measured the participants’ blood sugar, insulin, and metabolic hormone levels.

At the end of each session, the researchers gave the participants access to a buffet and recorded how much each participant ate.

The results showed that . . .

  1. Consuming artificially sweetened drinks increased activity in regions of the brain associated with appetite and cravings more than consuming a sugar-sweetened drink did, particularly in female and obese participants.
  2. Levels of metabolic hormones that tell your body you’re full decreased after consuming an artificially sweetened drink compared with a sugar-sweetened drink.
  3. Drinking an artificially sweetened drink increased the amount women (but not men) ate at the buffet.

What’s more, research shows that regularly eating sweets may increase the brain’s tolerance to sweetness, and strengthen your preference for sweet foods. According to this theory, while consuming sweet-tasting foods may satisfy your cravings in the short-term, it magnifies them in the long term.

Thus, you can see why many people believe that consuming artificial sweeteners may encourage you to consume more of the real McCoy.

However, no analysis of the research would be complete without looking at the counterarguments—and unfortunately for the artificial-sweeteners-cause-cravings crowd, their theory has some holes.

For example, several studies show that consuming artificial sweeteners doesn’t make you consume more calories later, nor does it make you seek sugary, calorie-dense food. One study in particular found that drinking artificially sweetened beverages reduced cravings for desserts more than drinking water.

 

It’s also debatable whether eating sweet food increases your preference for sweet food. While it makes sense given what we know about how eating salt or fat can increase our preference for salty, fatty foods, little direct evidence exists showing the same is true for sugar.

For instance, one study conducted by scientists at the University of Bristol showed that the more children drank orangeade, the more they enjoyed it. However, these findings weren’t replicated when the same test was done with adults.

Finally, there are question marks over the quality of the research on the effects of artificial sweeteners on cravings. 

Some studies were conducted using animals such as flies and mice, which you can’t necessarily extrapolate to humans. Others are so far removed from real-life situations that it’s doubtful how relevant they are in practice.

For instance, one study had participants drink a Sprite while answering questions about shampoo and then describe the packaging on a bottle of water, gum, and M&M’s. Another study had participants smell and look at their favorite food for four minutes while answering questions about their family genealogy, while a researcher placed a cotton swab in their mouth that was “impregnated” with the flavor of the food they were looking at. Not exactly how most people go about their mealtimes. 

So, do artificial sweeteners make you crave sweets? 

The short answer is . . . maybe, but it’s probably not enough to make you overeat or gain weight. 

If this is something you’re concerned about or it’s proven to be an issue for you in the past, try reducing or eliminating your consumption of artificial sweeteners and see how you feel. If your cravings ebb (and this was the only thing you changed about your diet), leave artificial sweeteners out of your diet in the future, and if they don’t, then don’t worry about it.

And if you currently consume artificially sweetened foods and drinks while dieting, and find they’re a useful “sweet treat” that helps you resist calorie-dense alternatives, then by all means continue (research also shows this might be a reasonable strategy for sticking to your diet).

FAQ #1: Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?

Many of the claims about artificial sweeteners contributing to weight gain, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, headaches, and seizures are overblown. 

However, while artificial sweeteners may not be as dangerous as some people say, studies show that regularly consuming them may be harmful to our health.

If you want to sweeten your food with something that’s low in calories, safe, and sugar-free, your best options are stevia, erythritol, and luo han guo fruit extracts.

Multiple studies show that they’re not only safe but can also confer several health benefits, including better insulin sensitivity, a lower cholesterol profile, improved blood glucose control, potential anti-cancer effects, lower blood pressure and inflammation levels, and more.

Basically, if you’re at all worried about the health effects of artificial sweeteners, you can easily sidestep any issues by using a natural alternative. 

FAQ #2: Artificial Sweeteners vs. Sugar: Which is better?

Artificial sweeteners and sugar aren’t inherently “bad,” which means neither is inherently “better” than the other.

That said, research on the dangers of artificial sweeteners isn’t always clear cut, and there are some reasons to believe you should minimize the amount of artificial sweeteners you consume.

Sugar, on the other hand, is very well studied and poses little in the way of a health risk when consumed in moderation.

Thus, it’s probably best to opt for sugary food over artificially sweetened food most of the time (especially if you’re consuming natural sugars found in foods like fruit 😉), and keep any artificially sweetened indulgences to a minimum.

FAQ #3: Can you buy protein powder without artificial sweeteners?

Yes.

Legion’s Whey+, Casein+, and Plant+ protein powders are all naturally sweetened with stevia and erythritol.

If you want a mouth-watering, high-protein, low-calorie protein powder that’s free from any chemical junk, try Whey+, Casein+, or Plant+ today.

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