The ongoing debate of what’s worse for you, artificial sweetener or (added) sugar, is one that carries many opinions, but not always facts. What’s happened over time is that people heard one thing, it stuck, and then they brought it up whenever the topic arose. However, New York Times’ contributor and health researcher Adam E. Carroll, likely in an effort to spare future dinner party arguments, evaluated the evidence and broke it down, noting a clear winner: artificial sweetener.
See, back in the 1980s, saccharin, an artificial sweetener that’s been around forever, was deemed a problematic chemical, with Congress deciding that any product that contained it also needed a warning: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
Why? Because more than 50 studies were done about saccharin in lab rats. One of those studies actually found a correlation between the artificial sweetener and disease. The great fear then, as a result of the tests, was that saccharin caused bladder cancer. But, apparently, in a much later reveal, it was noted that the study focused on a certain type of rat, one that’s regularly infected with a bladder parasite anyway.
Moving onto humans, though, studies across North America and Europe had trouble determining an association between saccharin consumption and bladder cancer once cigarette smoking was accounted for. So, in 2000, saccharin was removed from the carcinogen list.
But a bad rep can be hard to lose.
That’s where aspartame, another artificial sweetener, came in. But though it was more or less considered a replacement for saccharin, it went through the same thing because studies were “highly contested.”
Meanwhile, added sugar intake increases the fat and overall weight of a person. Toward the end of his argument, Carroll summarizes the two heavyweights.
Another meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013, found that sugar-sweetened beverages alone cause body weight to go up in adults. In comparison, a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials of artificial or low-calorie sweeteners published last year in the same journal found that their use led to lower body weight and less overall fat.
So there it is, for you keep on hand the next time you add artificial sweetener to your iced tea and a friend tells you that you’re slowly killing yourself.