Artificial sweeteners became extremely popular in the mid-20th century. Who doesn’t like the idea of drinking a large soda with zero calories? The discovery of artificial sweeteners like saccharin, aspartame, and stevia made this dream possible – all the taste with none of the calories. But do these additives have harmful side effects that we don’t know of yet? Read on to find out!

Just when you think the food industry cannot possibly come up with something new, you discover zero-calorie beverages. And who wouldn’t like the idea? You can drink all the sodas you want and satisfy your sweet tooth, all without consuming a gram of sugar. But they’re not limited to beverages. At most cafés and restaurants, these sweeteners are available as an alternative option to sugar. And they’re used extensively in the food processing industry – in protein bars, canned goods, baked items and more.

You might wonder how artificial sweeteners work? How can a food product taste sweet, but have little (or zero) calories? It’s all thanks to the way they’re metabolized. Most artificial sweeteners are classed as non-nutritive. This simply means they move through your digestive system without being metabolized. But while they pass by our digestive enzymes without being recognized, our taste buds react differently. When we taste these sweeteners, sensory cells send signals to your brain, telling it that you’re eating something sweet. Artificial sweeteners are often hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sugar, so for the food manufacturing industry, they are very useful.

A few decades ago, it was even somewhat of a fashion statement to avoid sugar and rather opt for Equal, Splenda, or Sweet’N Low. Of course, for those who are diabetic or watching their weight, these alternative sweeteners are more than just a fad. They’re actually concerned for their health. So naturally, when news media reports about possible side effects arise, it is quite concerning. These concerns led researchers to take a closer look at the potential side effects of artificial sweeteners and whether there is something we should be worried about.

According to a 2014 study in Nature, they could be compromising your gut bacteria. The ‘bad’ bacteria feed on the sweeteners, while the ‘healthy’ bacteria don’t get enough food and starve. This leads to an unhealthy balance in your gut and could actually put you at risk for developing diabetes. This is somewhat ironic since many individuals choose sweeteners over sugar, thinking it is better for preventing diabetes!

Another concern, is the way that artificial sweeteners affect our brain. Studies suggest that the non-nutritive sweeteners cross the blood-brain barrier, which in turn, affects our appetite and body weight regulation. Unknowingly, you might also be training your taste buds to like sweeter things. Because these artificial sweeteners are so sweet, you’re retraining your body to get used to it. When you then eat fresh fruits with natural sweetness, it’s likely to be less satisfying.

For the most part, non-nutritive sweeteners don’t seem to have detrimental effects on our immediate health – but the potential of long-term side effects couldn’t be excluded either.

The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be harmful if you’re a healthy individual. If you have diabetes or experience gastrointestinal issues, however, you might want to avoid them. Instead of choosing sweeteners over sugar, rather try and reduce your sugar intake as a whole and retrain your taste buds!