Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Good or Bad for You?

Learn the latest science before you sprinkle the sweet stuff.

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You might be saving a few hundred calories by ordering your latte with sugar-free hazelnut syrup, but guess what? Nutritionists say you may be better off with the real deal.

Artificial sweeteners have been around for decades, and we know them by their table names: Sweet-N-Low, Splenda, Equal, or Nutrasweet, to name the most common. These artificial sweeteners are man-made from chemicals, and they are way sweeter than actual sugar—183 times sweeter, in some cases.

But the latest scientific thinking on how artificial sweeteners affect your health is a little more complicated.  They may save you calories, but they may not necessarily lead to weight loss, according to registered dietitian Sharon Richter, RD. In fact, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, “by providing a sweet taste without any calories, however, artificial sweeteners cause us to crave more sweet foods and drinks, which can add up to excess calories.”

This is especially a problem if you eat multiple artificially sweetened foods throughout the day. It’s not just the pink or blue packets you add to mugs of coffee or into oatmeal. Artificial sweeteners come in all types of “lite” or “low-cal” food products: yogurt, gum, ice cream, snack bars, cereal, diet soda, and other drinks.

Plus, the hyper-sweetness of sugar substitutes can dull your taste buds and prevent you from appreciating the sweetness in natural foods, like beets or sweet potatoes. For this reason, even so-called natural sugar substitutes (e.g. stevia, which is extracted from the stevia plant) have consequences worth considering. With regular consumption of these sugar substitutes—natural or artificial—you might have trouble sticking to a whole foods diet because you may start to find real food flavorless.

The best solution: Skip artificial sweeteners and stick with smaller portions of foods or drinks made with real sweeteners. Enjoy sweetened foods in moderation, and remember that major calories can hide in those large, tasty beverages!