by Will Li (’23) | March 29, 2021
In the past few decades, obesity has become a widespread problem in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42.4% of American adults are obese. To remedy this issue, companies like Pepsi have replaced the sugar in their products with zero-calorie sweeteners like aspartame. But the obesity epidemic still looms large. Why?
Most Americans are aware of the term “artificial sweetener” but not “zero-calorie sweetener.” The distinction is that some zero-calorie sweeteners, like acesulfame potassium, are artificial, while others like stevia are natural. These sweeteners have gotten a bad reputation for contributing to the social stigma known as “diet culture,” perhaps ostracizing overweight individuals while still not alleviating chronic obesity. Although some arguments against these sweeteners are valid, other points must be addressed too.
One main argument against these sweeteners is that according to Healthline, artificial sweeteners like sucralose increase blood sugar, which leads to stronger cravings and tendencies to overeat. Consequently, even if people swap out sugary sodas for mostly artificially flavored diet sodas, they have a greater chance of overeating sugary foods later. Additionally, some zero-calorie sweeteners do not reward the brain the same way that sugar does, causing people to still crave sugar after eating them. According to these arguments, these sweeteners ultimately prompt people to eat high-calorie, sugary foods that contribute to a calorie surplus, thereby furthering obesity.
Another argument against artificial sweeteners is the potential for increased cancer risk. While consuming large quantities of sweeteners increases the possibilities of cancer development, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set absurdly high Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs) for each sweetener. For instance, a 132-pound person would have to use twenty-three packets of the sugar substitute Splenda every day for decades to see an increased cancer risk. Therefore, cancer development is not an issue as long as artificial sweeteners are used in moderation.
However, the main arguments against zero-calorie sweeteners do not consider the sweeteners’ fundamental purpose: to preserve calories. In order to lose weight by cutting calories, people must accurately track their caloric intake. When doing so, zero-calorie sweeteners are tremendously useful, allowing people to treat themselves after reaching their calorie limits and helping to crush cravings for higher-calorie foods. Therefore, when used correctly (in conjunction with a calorie-controlled diet), zero-calorie sweeteners are highly effective for weight loss and weight maintenance to solve the obesity crisis.
Additionally, natural zero-calorie sweeteners, namely stevia, monk fruit, and erythritol, are becoming popular. Stevia is derived from a Brazilian leaf, monk fruit is derived from a Thai gourd, and erythritol is derived from fermented corn. Unlike other sweeteners such as aspartame, natural sweeteners do not increase blood sugar and cravings and are keto-friendly. Also, natural sweeteners do not increase cancer risk and are thus healthier than artificial sweeteners.
Ultimately, a good plan of action is to use zero-calorie sweeteners in moderation while tracking caloric intake. When consuming these sweeteners, natural ones like stevia are preferred over artificial ones like sucralose. And despite claims of negative side effects, we must consider that obesity is even unhealthier; according to Vox, obesity itself kills four million people worldwide annually and leads to other diseases like cancer. Finally, the best solution is to avoid sugar and zero-calorie sweeteners, sticking to unprocessed foods like fruits and spices to add flavor while staying healthy.