Krista Johnson, CPT, CNS
Research SSC 328
​September 4, 2009
As you reach for the little blue, yellow or pink packet to sweeten your tea or coffee, you may be feeling quite proud of yourself for making what you believe to be a healthier choice by using an artificial sugar that contains little or no calories as compared to real sugar.  Or maybe you are a diabetic, desperate to find an alternative to sugar, and feel this is the best choice. The reality is that artificial sugar is a chemical designed to trick the body, but has potentially harmful, addicting and even toxic side effects.

Artificial sugar was first discovered, like many things, by accident.  The first form was discovered by a chemist named Constantin Fahlburg.  He spilled the substance on his hands and later that evening, at dinner, licked his fingers and tasted the sweet substance.   Saccharine is 300-500 times sweeter than sugar and it wasn’t until 70 years later that the FDA linked it to causing cancer in rats (Hayes, 1989). 

Cyclamates were invented next in about 1937 by Michael Sveda, again by accident.   He was working on a drug to reduce fevers when it somehow got onto the end of his cigarette.  Once he took a puff, he discovered the sweet taste.  In 1969, it was also shown to increase the risk of cancer (Hayes, 1989).    

In 1965, Jim Schallter was working on a drug to help with ulcers and he too, licked his finger and discovered the sweet taste which is now known as Aspartame, also known as, Equal and NutraSweet.   

Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and is a compound of aspartyl-phenylalanine methyl ester.  It wasn’t until 16 years later that the FDA approved of the sweetener because of so many conflicting studies about the health risks involved.  Studies also have proven that when heated to over 90° F that the substance converts to formaldehyde (Hayes, 1989).  

In 1976, the now popular sweetener sucralose, also known as, Splenda, was discovered in England by a student named Shashikant Phadnis.  He was employed by a sugar company and tasted the compound, finding it to be deliciously sweet.  In fact, it is 600 times sweeter than sugar. 

Sucralose was not approved by the FDA until 1998 and became popular because the chemical does not change when heated, unlike its competitors.  Although it sounds like a winner, studies have shown that it too can cause numerous health problems such as shrunken thymus glands, enlarged liver, and kidneys and even raised levels glycosylated hemoglobin in diabetics. 

It was also created in a pesticide lab (Hayes, 1989). (Inserted to add after this paper was written than in 2013, the FDA lowered it's approval of suclarose/Splenda to "use with caution")

So how does artificial sugar work in your body?  The chemical process of these artificial sweeteners is to alter the composition of the sugar so that your body does not recognize it.  A different molecule than that of sugar is created and because this fake sugar is not natural, your body doesn’t acknowledge it and your body cannot properly metabolize or digest it.  

So what happens to things we consume that cannot be digested or metabolized? 

They become a toxin because a toxin is anything your body does not recognize.  Where do toxins go in your body?   They go to your liver because your liver is designed to detoxify your body by creating bile, which ultimately breaks down fats in our bodies.   When our liver becomes overloaded with toxins such as artificial sweeteners, it cannot effectively do its job of processing fat, which is why it is incorrect to say that artificial sweeteners will help you lose weight. A study reported that there is a "41% increase in the risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day" (Roberts, 2005). 

They actually inhibit weight loss by confusing your metabolism and overworking your liver.  What else happens when your liver is overloaded with toxins?  It is similar to a person who has abused alcohol for a long period of time.  The effects on the liver of diet drinks and alcohol on the liver is the same (Hull, 1998).  There are numerous studies proving that these sweeteners increase cancer and other diseases when not consumed in moderation ("Artificial sweeteners and," 2009). 

Are artificial sugars a drug? 

Yes, because a drug is anything that alters the chemical process in your mind or body. 

Artificial sugar changes the dopamine level in the brain. In 1993, a psychiatrist named Dr. Walton did a study of 40 people with depression and 40 without.  Each person was given 30mg a day of aspartame, but because of the severity of reactions from the group who already had depression, the study had to stop. Accordingly, the author concluded that "individuals with mood disorders are particularly sensitive to this artificial sweetener and its use in this population should be discouraged" (McManamy, 2008).

Can you become addicted to artificial sweeteners? 

Artificial sweetener addiction works similar to a caffeine addiction where the more you consume it, the more you crave it.  Many build up a tolerance to it and, I, as a personal trainer, have had clients drinking up to 12 diet drinks a day in order to prevent headaches, migraines, fatigue, anxiety, low blood sugar drops, depression, nausea, and many other symptoms. 

In addition to my own studies, other studies have shown that when people consume artificial sugar on a daily basis and try to reduce it, they experience some or all of the above symptoms until they consume more products containing artificial sugar.  That is clearly an addiction.  Those who attempted to cut out artificial sugar, cold turkey, experienced withdrawal symptoms from minor to severe of the above-listed symptoms (Roberts, 2005).

There are several side effects of artificial sugar.  There are actually 92 health-related side effects of Aspartame (Inserted to add that since the writing of this paper, it is now over 100 health-related side effects) so here are just a few more common ones; eye pain, headaches, migraines, dizziness, severe depression, irritability, hyperactivity or restless legs, anxiety, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, intestinal pain, diarrhea, skin allergies, loss of hair, birth defects, cause or trigger fibromyalgia, Grave’s disease (thyroid) and many experience what is called Aspartame poisoning.   

Sucralose side effects include skin rashes, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain (Hull, 1998). 

Methanol, from aspartame, is released in the small intestine when the methyl group of aspartame encounters the enzyme chymotrypsin. 

A small amount of aspartame, which could be a small can of soda consumed by a child, can significantly increase plasma methanol levels.

Does artificial sugar have the potential for overdose? 

“The methanol from aspartame is converted to formaldehyde and then formic acid although some of the formaldehyde appears to accumulate in the body as discussed above. Chronic formaldehyde exposure at very low doses has been shown to cause the immune system and nervous system changes and damage as well as headaches, general poor health, irreversible genetic damage, and a number of other serious health problems”  ( Liesivuori 1993).  

It is clear that repeated exposure to aspartame can cause great, even grave danger and it would be very easy to overdose on artificial sweeteners considering it is in so much more than just diet drinks.  It is in most foods and drinks that are labeled “sugar-free”, breads, frozen treats, sports drinks, yogurt, chocolate milk, even nuts.   It is so important to read labels because you could be consuming artificial sugar on a daily basis and not even realize it.

To treat an addiction to artificial sweeteners, it is always best to consult a doctor to help with the process in case the withdrawal symptoms are severe or if the patient is a diabetic. 

Eliminating artificial sweetener from the patient’s diet completely is the first step as long as the doctor has approved of this method.  If the patient is also addicted to caffeine, it would be wise to wait to detoxify from the caffeine and not do both at once. 

The withdrawal symptoms can last from a few days to several weeks depending on the addiction level.   Alternatives to artificial sugar are sugar derived from plants such as stevia or chicory root.  Neither will raise blood sugar levels so they are also good choices for diabetics and chicory root has the bonus of containing fiber (Peirce, & Association, 1999).

As hard as the world tries to invent new products for us to consume and help make people “healthier”, anything that is artificially made with chemicals is going to have side effects on our bodies.   The FDA has had more complaints about artificial sweeteners than any other food additive and yet has not banned all of them ("Aspartame complaints, 1981-2009").  Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners do alter the chemicals in our minds and bodies just like any other drug.  Studies show that artificial sweeteners can cause disease and even cancer.  Studies have also shown that people have become addicted to artificial sweeteners and have had to go through a detoxification process just as other drugs. 

Artificial sweeteners are clearly a drug that have the potential to be misused and can be harmful and even lethal.   Because children can consume them freely, they have great potential to cause health problems in people who have consumed them since childhood. 

Just like any drug, artificial sweeteners should be consumed responsibly.  The FDA and retailers of the sweeteners should take more initiative to inform the public of these potentials so our society can make better-informed decisions before consuming these products.
  Hayes, A. (1989). Artificial sweeteners: a special issue of the journal comments on toxicology. Routledge.
Roberts, H.J. (2005). Reactions attributed to aspartame-containing products: 551 cases. Journal of Applied Nutrition, 40, 85-94.
Hull, Janet. (1998). Sweet poison. New Horizon Pr.
McManamy, J. (2008, February 10). Don't drink the diet coke. Retrieved from http://www.mcmanweb.com
(2009, August 05). Artificial sweeteners and cancer. Retrieved from www.cancer.gov
Liesivuori. (1993). Methanol toxicity. American Family Physician, 71(1), 163-171.
Peirce, Andrea, & Association, American. (1999). The American pharmaceutical association practical guide to natural medicines. William Morrow.
(1981-2009) Aspartame complaints. Retrieved from www.fda.gov