The FDA’s new “healthy” guidelines incentivize companies to hide dangerous artificial sweeteners in food. Action Alert!
Recently, the World Health Organization released new guidelines warning against the use of artificial sweeteners for weight control, finding that long-term use of these sweeteners was linked with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and mortality in adults. That many artificial sweeteners are dangerous and should be avoided is something we’ve been saying for quite some time. Unfortunately, our food is being pumped full of this stuff unbeknownst to many Americans and the problem stands to get far worse under new FDA policies about which foods can be considered “healthy.”
We recently covered the FDA’s new proposed definition of “healthy” and all the things that are wrong with it. To be considered “healthy” according to the proposal, foods would, among other things, need to be under proposed limits for added sugars. Luckily for Big Food, but unfortunately for us, there are a host of artificial sweeteners that can be added to food to make it sweet but that don’t have to be listed on the label as added sugar. The FDA is giving the food industry a green light to pump hidden artificial sweeteners into our food and deceptively call it “healthy.”
Artificial sweeteners have been snuck into a wide variety of foods, many of which may surprise you. They are found in bread, yogurt, oatmeal, canned soups, salad dressings, condiments, snack bars, muffins, and more. Most concerning, an increasing number of products containing these sweeteners are being marketed to kids. The Big Food lobby has successfully ensured that only savviest health-conscious consumers will be able to identify when artificial sweeteners have been added.
Here’s the secret, you have to know the names of artificial sweeteners and literally search the ingredient list for these obscure names to avoid them. Here are the ingredients to look for:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sweet One, Sunett)
- Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
- Neotame (Newtame)
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
Even foods that claim “no artificial sweeteners” often are sweetened with “natural” plant or fruit-based sugar substitutes or sugar alcohols. You can look for these ingredients under the names:
- Luo han guo (Monk fruit)
- Stevia (Truvia, PureVia)
These “natural” sugar substitutes can be better than the alternative, but as ANH Board President Dr. Ron Hoffman notes, “Keep in mind, though, that any substance that delivers a sweet sensation—caloric or not—can reinforce and perpetuate a craving for more sweets.”
As we’ve been saying for years, many artificial sweeteners are demonstratively not healthy. Aspartame has been linked with cancer, which may not be all that surprising when we consider that ten percent of aspartame is methanol, which is converted to formaldehyde which, in turn, is converted to formic acid—which is used to strip epoxy! Another study found an increased risk of stroke and dementia with aspartame consumption. A 2022 study published in the British Medical Journal found that a high intake of artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame and sucralose) increased the risk of cardiovascular problems like stroke and coronary heart disease. Another study showed that drinking beverages sweetened with sucralose promotes insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.
Eating artificial sweeteners has also been shown to change the function and composition of the gut microbiome—that is, the microbes that reside in our gut and intestines. Among the many crucial roles played by the gut microbiome in human health is that they transform food into enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. But eating artificial sweeteners altered the microbiome in ways that are detrimental to health, including by worsening blood sugar control.
Finally, artificial sweeteners can lead to stronger sugar cravings. Many artificial sweeteners are much, much sweeter than sugar but do not contain calories. This confuses the brain and taste receptors: you’re tasting something sweet, sending a signal to your brain to prepare for an influx of calories that do not come. Studies have found that this can lead us to develop stronger sugar cravings that cause us to eat more sugar and sweetened foods.
(A quick side note: recent headlines linked erythritol, another sweetener, to heart attack risk. We looked at these claims at the science underlying them and found the evidence to be quite weak, certainly insufficient to justify the alarmist headlines that accompanied the poor studies. Erythritol was also not among the sweeteners specifically named by the WHO, and is generally not among the artificial sweeteners looked at by the studies mentioned above linking them to negative health effects.)
So what can we do about these hidden artificial sweeteners? We’re joining other groups in calling for more transparent labeling of artificial sweeteners on food labels. Consumers shouldn’t have to have science degrees to understand if a food has been artificially sweetened, given the health dangers of these products and the aggressive marketing toward children. But this is also an example of the crony games being played at the federal level. Even in creating a definition for “healthy” foods, the FDA manages to create loopholes that benefit Big Food companies selling junk food. This is why the FDA should not be in the business of making these determinations—it is too easy for industry to influence the process and undermine public health.
Action Alert! Write to Congress and the FDA demanding more transparent labeling of artificial sugars in food. Please send your message immediately.