Artificial Sweeteners: Past and Present

Since before we fully uncovered the detrimental health effects of added sugars, people understood that too much of the sweet stuff could wreak havoc on our waistlines, and artificial sweeteners were quickly welcomed as a way to have our cake and eat it too. The first sugar substitute introduced to the market was saccharin in the early 1900s, which eventually was banned…and then unbanned due to conflicting research on its cancer-causing potential. Next was cyclamate in the 1950s, which was used in Diet Pepsi® and became popular in the 1960s before being banned after it was shown to cause bladder cancer in rats. Then came aspartame and sucralose in the 1970s, which are still widely used today. The most recent low-calorie sweetener to gain popularity in the United States is stevia, which is currently recognized as a safe and effective alternative to sugar.1 A new study comparing sugar and artificial sweeteners caused quite a buzz in late April of this year. Using rats as the study subjects, researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University observed the effects of two types of sugar—glucose and fructose—and two types of artificial sweeteners—aspartame and acesulfame potassium. The results showed that all four substances caused adverse effects on the body. The researchers said that the sugars were properly handled by the body up to a certain point, but after prolonged use, the “machinery” that processes this sugar began to “break down.” Results from the artificial sweetener testing revealed that these substances changed the way the rats processed fat, leading to higher concentrations of fat in the blood. In addition, the researchers observed an accumulation of acesulfame potassium in the blood of rats that were fed this sweetener, which had a harmful effect on cells that line the blood vessels.2

Both aspartame and acesulfame potassium are currently approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, along with saccharin and sucralose. There is conflicting evidence concerning the long-term health effects of these sweeteners, but researchers in charge of the study deliver their results with a general message of moderation: When it comes to sweet treats, whether they’ve been sweetened with real sugar or a low-calorie substitute, moderation and common sense are always healthy philosophies to which we should subscribe. If you wouldn’t eat a slice of cake or a triple deluxe banana sundae sweetened with sugar every day, artificial sweeteners shouldn’t be viewed as a magic bullet that allows us to eat artificially sweetened versions of these treats every day, either.


  1. Gershenson, G. A brief and bizarre history of artificial sweeteners. Saveur. 23 Feb 2017. Accessed 8 May 2018.
  2. Experimental Biology 2018. Why zero-calorie sweeteners can still lead to diabetes, obesity: common artificial sweeteners shown to change how the body processes fat and energy. ScienceDaily site. 23 April 2018. releases/2018/04/180423085440.htm. Accessed 8 May 2018.

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