Sweet Addiction: Artificial Sweeteners Not So Sweet After All

June 21, 2017

Sugar substitutes were first developed in the 1950’s when a clinic director worked to develop a sugar-free diet for patients suffering from diabetes and other chronic conditions. The industry took off, and today diet sodas and sugar substitutes make up a huge part of the market.

The idea that sugar substitutes are healthy alternatives is rooted in the American psyche, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

Worse yet, the prevalence of artificial sweeteners, corn syrup and refined sugars in the majority of American foods have created a country of sweet-addicts.

Sweet Addiction

We are wired to crave some sweetness in our foods, especially during the winter and in childhood. This craving was meant to drive us to take in healthy carbohydrates in the form of naturally sweet plant foods.

Due to the extravagant amount of sweeteners in the majority of our foods and their extreme levels, many of us can no longer detect natural sweetness in healthy plant foods.

We’re not wired to handle this exorbitant amount of sweetness. This excess triggers unhealthy food cravings and addiction.

The craving children have for natural sweetness (for growth and development) would normally wane in adolescence. Instead, this waning is defeated by sweet addiction.

When we eat refined sugar or artificial sweeteners, our brains believe that we’re getting nutrients we need. Instead, we don’t get any real nutrients, so appetite and food cravings are re-triggered. Our bodies aren’t looking for more sweetness necessarily—they’re looking for real food!

Furthermore, when we take in these low-nutrient foods and drinks, we have less room for the good stuff.

Diet Sodas and Drinks

Diet soda has been linked to kidney damage and diet sodas and sweetened water beverages are linked to weight gain!

At the University of Texas, diet soda drinkers prove to be heavier than non-diet soda drinkers. Lead researcher Sharon Fowler says, “There was a 41% increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day.”

Purdue University scientists have found that in a rat study, artificial sweeteners increased caloric intake, body weight and body fat percentage.

And addiction? Cocaine-addicted rats choose saccharin-sweetened water above and beyond cocaine-doses, even when the researchers upped the drug levels!

Sweetened food and drink actually changes the taste buds, creating cravings for more sweetened foods.

One study looked at brain activity in women that ingested water sweetened with sugar and that sweetened with sucralose (what you might recognize as Splenda).

Both sweeteners activated pleasure centers in the brain, but sucralose didn’t produce as much satiation. The craving wasn’t really satisfying and so triggered increased cravings for more sweet stuff.

The nutrients that many sweetened waters are said to contain are often present in only the most miniscule amounts or are in forms that our bodies can’t make use of. Isolated vitamins and minerals don’t have the beneficial health effects that those in whole foods do. It’s the whole package—the combination of protein, lipids, carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals—in plants that produce positive health effects.

Dangerous Chemicals

The following are some of the most common (and most dangerous) food additives used today.

Acesulfame K

This brand-new artificial sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Little research has been done yet but early studies have linked it with certain cancers and thyroid conditions.

Artificial Flavoring

Artificial flavoring can mean that a food or beverage contains any one of 3,000 allowable chemicals, many of which have negative health effects.

Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet)

Aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar. The FDA file of complaints concerning aspartame ingestion includes reports of dizziness, headaches and memory loss. Some studies suggest it is a carcinogen.


Benzene is produced by the bottling process of many beverages. It is a noted carcinogen that has been linked to heart rate issues, infertility and seizures.


Cyclamates are among the first artificial sweeteners used in diet drinks. They were once banned by the FDA because of suspicion of their link to cancer but they are once again up for FDA approval.

Food Coloring

Many food colorings are linked to ADD/ADHD, asthma and cancer. Although several of these are banned in other countries, the US commonly makes use of Blue #1 and #2, FD &C colors, Ponceau, Red 2 (Amaranth), Red #3 (Erythrosine), Red #40 (Allura Red), Tartrazine, Yellow #2G, Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow), Yellow  #23 (Acid Yellow).

Saccharin (Sweet n’ Low)

Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar. The public stopped purchasing products made with the sweetener when they learned of it’s possible link to cancer. Studies didn’t ‘prove’ this link, so it is once again common in many artificially-sweetened foods. Saccharin is linked, however, to addiction to sweetness, obesity and overeating.

Sucralose (Splenda)

Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Sucralose was an accidental discovery: it was originally part of a new insecticide compound.

Chlorinated compounds such as sucralose were thought to pass through the body undigested. Recent research has found that up to 40% of chlorinated compounds become stockpiled in the intestinal tract, kidneys and liver. Chlorine has been classified as a carcinogen.

Reversing the Sweet Addiction

We can reverse our addiction to unhealthy sweeteners and restore our ability to taste the natural sweetness in whole foods over time. It will seem difficult at first, but I can’t encourage you more strongly to put down the diet sodas and the colored sweetener packets! These chemicals are foreign to our bodies and will not help you achieve any of your health goals.

Replace artificial sweeteners (and refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) with natural sweeteners like stevia, xylitol and small amounts of agave nectar or raw honey. Stevia is my personal favorite, as it is a no calorie, natural sweetener from the stevia plant. You will want to make sure you use a high quality brand that has not been overly processed. Stevia is also a great option for people dealing with diabetes, as it will not spike your blood sugar levels.

In the long run, your best bet is to use very little of even these natural sweeteners so that your body’s cravings, food triggers and metabolism are restored to healthy functioning.

From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.

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  1. Melinda on

    <p>When I drink Diet Sodas in the morning my stomach hurts so bad, it just doesn’t sit well with me at all. It’s so hard on me because I LOVE diet soda’s and always have. This is a tough transition! I hope at some point you can discuss Crystal Light, are they healthy or are they bad too? My teenager’s Dr recommended she drink Crystal Light to aide in her weight loss so I am not sure if they have artificial sweeteners too.</p>

    • Danielle Bomar on

      Crystal Light dirnks DO contain artificial sweetner, the main one is Aspartame. These drinks also caontain perservatives such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) which has been known to cause Cancer (in the form ofsquamous cell cercinomas) in rats and mice since as early as 1986.

  2. @Melinda on

    <p>Melinda: Crystal Light is sweetened with Aspartame:</p><p>Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet)</p><p>Aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar. The FDA file of complaints concerning aspartame ingestion includes reports of dizziness, headaches and memory loss. Some studies suggest it is a carcinogen.</p>

  3. Daniel on

    <p>I am a sweets addict. I don’t do artificial sweeteners, but if there are candies or pastries available to eat, I will eat until they are gone! I try not to keep any sweets in my house for that purpose. I didn’t know until recently how harmful sugar and high fructose corn syrup is for the body, so I’m trying to pull away from those things. The withdraws are horrible. :(</p>

  4. Steve on

    <p>Dr Axe,<br/>I’ve given up on even the &quot;organic&quot; sugars in the last year, and switched to a Stevia product that also has Maltodextrin in it. What the heck is that and is it safe?! </p><p>Thanks,<br/>Steve</p>

  5. Allen on

    <p>If artificial sweetners trick the brain then won’t those &quot;healthy&quot; alternatives you mention do the same deed? Stevia has a bit of wierd taste with some bitterness.</p>

  6. Brandi on

    <p>Dr. Josh,<br/>What do you think about Gatorade? I assume it has artificial additives. What do you recommend as a substitute (drink or sports drink) in order to get the electrolytes, potassium, etc? <br/>Thank you,</p>

  7. David on

    <p>Brandi:</p><p>I was also in search of a natural sports drink and discovered coconut water. It is a little expensive but it has about 15 times the electrolytes (potassium) found in gatorade and it is 100% all natural. The wierd thing is that it does not taste like conconut at all. It is like a sweetened water and tastes great. It is a great substitue for the processed artificial stuff. I found it at Whole Foods and also at the larger grocery stores that have a &quot;healthy&quot; section.</p>

  8. Dr. Axe on

    <p>Steve, <br/>Maltodextrin is a complex sugar that the human digestive system breaks down into simple sugars very quickly. As such, it provides a longer ‘burn’ of energy that sucrose or fructose. It’s used in many sporting drinks for athletes.</p><p>Is it bad for you? Not necessarily–if you’re burning it up with exercise. But it is basically sugar, so it will effect you in the negative way all sugar would.</p><p>Allen,<br/>Different brands of stevia often will have a bitter aftertaste. Try a higher quality brand like NuNaturals or Stevita.</p>

  9. Chad on

    <p>Allen,<br/>Try different brands and types of stevia. My personal favorite comes from a company called Sevita. When using Stevia though you should always try a little at a time as PURE stevia in larger amounts will overpower your taste buds and taste bitter. </p><p>Steve,<br/>Maltodextrin can make stevia taste more sugary where stevia can have many diferent tones to its flavor from Floral to Honey depends on the quality and quantity of the steviosides. The one I use has at least 95% steviosides with no other ingredients or fillers, Per Stevita it is 250 times sweeter than sugar. </p><p>Melinda,<br/>Check out WholeFoods Market for a product called Zevia. It is an All natural Stevia sweetened Soda in different flavors.</p><p>Everyone else find the Documentary Sweet Misery to see how really bad Artificial is.</p>

  10. Steve on

    <p>Thanks for the response Dr. Axe! I forgot to check back until today when I reread the ingrediants on my Stevia packet. I’ll try the brands you noted when this stuff runs out. Love your site! Thanks for all the great info.</p><p>Steve</p>

  11. Chad on

    <p>VSB:<br/>Truvia is chemicaly processed Stevia with just one component called Rebiana (Reb-A). <br/>It is also made by Cargill who’s is known for GMO.</p>

  12. Erica on

    I’ve been a terrible artificial sweetener addict for a long time now and am trying to get it under control.. it all started when I began losing weight years ago and thought I could have my sugar free cake and eat it too.. However your recommendation to switch to stevia I believe is just trading one vice for another in that you’re not dealing with the problem of sugar addiction by promoting “healthy” no calorie sweetener, I believe the problem is that peoples sweet tooth these days are so weak that given a calorie free sweetener/ natural or not, will cause the same problems and food cravings

  13. Sarah on

    Once I started drinking filtered water, eliminating sugar-free all my drinks, I picked up some crystal light packets. Loved them. 3 months later was, diagnosed with fibromyalgia…a side affect of aspartame since quitting my fibromyalgia has disappeared! I would have never put 2 and 2 together without reading this article. Thank you!

  14. Judith Rosell Rosell on

    I’ve had always a sweet tooth, and for a long time I’ve been reading about which natural sweetener would be the healthiest. I found out that maple syrup, agave nectar, raw honey and coconut sugar turn out to be the most recommended. (Stevia is for sure the winner in every article I’ve read, but since it has a particular taste, it doesn’t fit everywhere…). Which of these natural sweeteners would you recommend for health and weight loss?

  15. Brenda on

    I use Stevia as well as honey. I can hardly use a whole packet of Stevia in any drink…like tea. I don’t like my drinks or food to be real sweet.

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