Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS), also commonly referred to as artificial sweeteners or high intensity sweeteners, are sugar substitutes that provide a no-calorie alternative to regular sugar (sucrose). They are intensely sweet – way sweeter than sugar! There are many different kinds that are used in food and beverages, including supplements like pre-workout and protein. NNS can be broken down into two subcategories, synthetic (artificial) and natural non-nutritive sweeteners.
A common question that people have is “are NNS safe to consume?” In short, yes. The FDA has approved several non-nutritive (“high intensity”) sweeteners for use in the United States (1). Those are saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame. Two natural NNS are approved as well: stevia extract and monk fruit extract.
For these sweeteners to be approved by the FDA, all of the scientific evidence surrounding that specific food is gathered and analyzed by scientific experts. As part of the approval, the FDA also provides an acceptable daily intake (ADI) which is the amount that is safe to consume daily over the course of a person’s lifetime. Each NNS has a slightly different ADI.
In a 2016 meta-analysis, 15 randomized controlled trials were analyzed to conclude that substituting “low-calorie sweeteners” (NNS) for regular-calorie foods results in modest weight loss and might be another tool to effectively improve compliance in weight loss programs (2).
Furthermore, a position statement from the American Dietetic Association in 2012 states that “consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners when consumed in a diet that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for American and the Dietary Reference Intakes, as well as individual health goals (3).”
Myths about Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
There are a lot of myths surrounding non-nutritive sweeteners and their effects of different health conditions, etc. Now that we have covered their safety, let’s cover some common myths about non-nutritive sweeteners that we often hear:
Myth 1: Non-nutritive sweeteners cause weight gain
You may have heard that non-nutritive sweeteners cause obesity. The relationship between NNS consumption and obesity (and type 2 diabetes) is complicated. There are a number of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that have examined the effects of NNS consumption on weight gain and obesity (4). The consensus in the literature is that artificial sweetener consumption does not negatively impact the ability to lose weight.
Observational research does point to consumption of NNS being associated with obesity (4, 5). Meaning, those with obesity consume a higher amount of NNS. This is not surprising, since many individuals with obesity use NNS to curb their sweet tooth in an attempt to lose weight. This association should not be misinterpreted as the cause of weight gain or obesity.
Myth 2: Non-nutritive sweeteners cause cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute and several other professional organizations, there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that non-nutritive sweeteners cause cancer. This myth began when studies from the 1970s linked bladder cancer to artificial sweetener consumption (saccharin, specifically). However, many of those studies were performed in rats and once more research became available in humans, the relationship was not the same (6). In a review article published in 2013, the authors concluded the low-calorie sweeteners were not associated with pancreatic, digestive tract, breast, endometrium, ovary, prostate or kidney cancers (7).
Myth 3: Non-nutritive sweeteners spike insulin
Non-nutritive sweeteners do not contain carbohydrates, so they generally do not raise blood sugar or spike insulin like regular sugar. There is evidence emerging that suggests chronic consumption of NNS can alter glycemic control, but the research is inconclusive at this time (8).
Bottom line: Are non-nutritive sweeteners safe?
While it’s true that non-nutritive sweeteners are safe to consume for many people, there are some groups of people who should monitor their intake and consume non-nutritive sweeteners with caution. These groups include: women who are pregnant or lactating, people with diabetes, people with epilepsy, and children. If you fall into one of the above categories, we recommend that you consult with a medical professional for more specific guidance.
If you’re evaluating this information because you’re looking at the ingredient list and label on a choosing something like a sports supplement, then another way to ensure what you’re consuming is safe is by selecting products use a product that a supplement that is that are third party tested to give yourself piece of mind. A company such as Buff Chick Supplements use products stevia in their whey and sucralose in their pre- workouts. You can have confidence in their products range because they’re third party tested so that it embraces the gold standard in testing protocols. A product like this carries the Banned Substance Control Group (BSCG) stamp of approval – Certified Drug Free. With decades of experience in anti- doping and sport drug testing as a foundation, BSCG offers the Olympic standard in analytical testing to finished product brands, ingredient suppliers, manufacturing facilities, teams, leagues, athletes, and other consumers that want to verify that the quality of products and ingredients meet expectations. This critical information helps ensure ingredients are not contaminated with drugs or other agents that can lead to health concerns or positive drug tests. BSCG certifications demonstrate that brands have gone above and beyond industry standards to assure athletes and consumers that products have been made right. The BSCG stamp is on premium brands that go the extra mile for product quality offering you the best possible outcomes for your purchase. The BSCG stamp is the way to make supplement shopping easier for yourself.
By Dr. Brittany Masteller
1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2017). https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/high-intensity-sweeteners. Accessed October 10, 2021.
2. Sharma A, Amarnath S, Thulasimani M, Ramaswamy S. Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe?. Indian J Pharmacol. 2016;48(3):237-240. doi:10.4103/0253-7613.182888
3. Fitch C, Keim KS; Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 May;112(5):739-58. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.03.009. Epub 2012 Apr 25. Erratum in: J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Aug;112(8):1279. PMID: 22709780.
4. Miller PE, Perez V. Low-calorie sweeteners and body weight and composition: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(3):765-777. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.082826
5. Bleich SN, Wolfson JA, Vine S, Wang YC. Diet-beverage consumption and caloric intake among US adults, overall and by body weight. Am J Public Health. 2014 Mar;104(3):e72-8. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301556. Epub 2014 Jan 16. PMID: 24432876; PMCID: PMC3953764.
6. Morgan RW, Jain MG. Bladder cancer: smoking, beverages and artificial sweeteners. Can Med Assoc J. 1974;111(10):1067-1070.
7. Marinovich M, Galli CL, Bosetti C, Gallus S, La Vecchia C. Aspartame, low-calorie sweeteners and disease: regulatory safety and epidemiological issues. Food Chem Toxicol. 2013 Oct;60:109-15. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2013.07.040. Epub 2013 Jul 23. PMID: 23891579.
8. We Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, Coulon S, Cefalu WT, Geiselman P, Williamson DA. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2010 Aug;55(1):37-43. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2010.03.009. Epub 2010 Mar 18. PMID: 20303371; PMCID: PMC2900484.