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June 03, 2021 / Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN

Do Artificial Sweeteners Affect Blood Sugar?

Black sugar caddy filled with multiple kinds of sugar and artificial sweetener packets.

Some artificial sweeteners have been found to affect blood sugar levels. Artificial sweeteners, also known as nonnutritive sweeteners, are sugar substitutes added to food to make them taste sweet. They offer a no- or low-calorie alternative to sugar for people conscious about their sugar intake or concerned about diabetes, high blood pressure, or weight gain.

The sugar you eat affects your blood sugar and how much insulin your body releases. If blood sugar levels are consistently high, your body releases more insulin to bring blood sugars down. Over time, this may lead to insulin resistance, which is often associated with weight gain and can increase the risk of developing diabetes. That’s why stable blood sugar levels and weight loss are connected.

This is where artificial sweeteners come into play—they offer the promise of a sweet taste without the presence of actual sugar. We know that sugar can raise blood sugar, but how do artificial sweeteners affect blood sugar? Despite all the research that has been done, more research is needed to determine the effects (especially long-term) of artificial sweeteners on blood sugar, insulin, and the gut microbiome.

Read on to find out if artificial sweeteners affect blood sugar and insulin levels, which sweetener may be best for you, and healthy sugar substitutes for diabetes.

Which Artificial Sweeteners Raise Blood Sugar?

Most artificial sweeteners provide little to no calories or carbohydrates because of the way they are digested and broken down in the body. We know that carbs raise blood sugar, so how do some artificial sweeteners affect blood sugar? The answer lies in your gut. Your gut microbiome houses billions of microorganisms such as bacteria and it can directly affect your health—from your weight to your digestion to your blood sugar levels.

A 2014 study found that certain artificial sweeteners can raise blood sugar levels by potentially changing the composition of the bacteria in your gut in a way that worsens glucose tolerance and increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, which is closely tied to symptoms of insulin resistance. The researchers found a correlation between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and an increase in certain parameters related to metabolic syndrome, such as:

The study found that the following sweeteners raised blood sugar:

Saccharin

Saccharin is an artificial sweetener that is not broken down in the body, making it a no-calorie sweetener that also has zero carbs. This sweetener was first discovered in 1879 and became more popular over time.

The word saccharin is derived from “saccharine,” which quite literally means sweet or sugary. So it’s no surprise that saccharin is quite sweet—in fact, it’s 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA approves the use of saccharin as a sugar substitute in beverages, fruit drinks, and processed foods (like bakery goods, chewing gum, and jams). Saccharin can also be used during cooking and at the table to sweeten foods without adding sugar. Because of saccharin’s bitter taste, it is often mixed with other low-calorie sweeteners like aspartame, especially in soft drinks and diet sodas.

You may not be familiar with the term saccharin, but you’ve likely heard of some of the sweeteners that contain it, such as:

Saccharin doesn’t contain sugar, carbohydrates, or calories, so it’s unlikely that it will raise blood sugar right away, but there may be a chance that it will affect your blood sugar after long-term use. In a 2019 study, researchers found that rats that were fed a saccharine solution days had high blood sugar and had an increased risk of diabetes after 60 to 120 days of consistent use. However, since this study was done on rats and not humans, it’s difficult to ascertain the effect that saccharin would have on blood sugar levels in humans.

Sucralose

Sucralose is more commonly referred to by its brand name, Splenda. This sweetener was discovered in 1976 and is made by a process that changes the chemical composition of sugar to create a no-calorie sweetener. Although it stems from sugar, Splenda is actually 600 times sweeter than sugar.

Unlike saccharin, sucralose doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste, making it a popular option for some people. Sucralose is commonly used as a sugar substitute in baking, cooking, beverages, chewing gum, syrups, and condiments.

But does sucralose raise blood sugar? It may. A study published in the journal Diabetes Care looked at the effects of sucralose on people with obesity who normally did not consume sucralose. The researchers found that when the subjects consumed sucralose, their blood sugar and insulin levels rose significantly more than when they consumed water. However, other studies found no rise in blood sugar levels with sucralose consumption.

Aspartame

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that was discovered in 1965. When digested, aspartame is rapidly broken down into smaller compounds such as methanol and phenylalanine. Unlike saccharin and sucralose, aspartame is considered a nutritive sweetener because it contains calories. Because it is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar, you’re unlikely to consume as many calories from aspartame as you would with sugar.

Aspartame has been rigorously studied and tested for safety. The FDA approves the use of aspartame in chewing gum, breakfast cereals, beverages like instant coffee and tea, puddings, and dairy products. People also use aspartame as a tabletop sugar substitute. One caveat, though, is that aspartame isn’t heat-stable, so it isn’t usually used in baked goods because it becomes less sweet when heated.

Some popular brand names for aspartame that you may recognize include:

So, does aspartame raise blood sugar? Although aspartame is often recommended for people with diabetes as a way to control blood sugar, research suggests that aspartame may actually raise blood sugar and worsen insulin resistance. A 2018 review found that aspartame intake may lead to impaired glucose tolerance in people with diabetes. These effects are likely because aspartame may increase cortisol levels and alter gut microbial activity—both of which can worsen insulin resistance.

Artificial Sweeteners and Diabetes: Are There Healthy Sugar Substitutes for Diabetics?

The topic of artificial sweeteners for diabetes is a confusing one. On one hand, artificial sweeteners are often recommended for people with diabetes because they either contain very little or no sugar, carbs, or calories. Many people use them as sugar substitutes in an effort to be healthier and manage their blood sugar levels.

On the other hand, some artificial sweeteners are not always the best options—and may actually raise blood sugar with long-term use. Knowing how to recognize the best artificial sweeteners is key. There are low-calorie natural sweeteners that may be more beneficial to your health.

Some examples of more “natural” sweeteners include:

Some of these natural sweeteners still contribute to your added sugar intake, so it may be helpful to learn how to detox from sugar. Lowering your intake of sugar and sweeteners overall might be the best call when it comes to managing your blood sugar.

Do Artificial Sweeteners Raise Insulin Levels?

You may not have realized that even tasting something sweet—even if it does not contain sugar—can affect insulin levels. When you eat or taste something sweet, your pancreas releases insulin in anticipation of rising blood sugars, causing a slight rise in the level of insulin in your blood. This process is called cephalic phase insulin release and is the reason why artificial sweeteners can raise your insulin levels even if you’re not consuming sugar or carbs. Over time, elevated insulin levels can lead to insulin resistance.

On top of that, repeat consumption of artificial sweeteners can cause changes to the balance of your gut bacteria. This imbalance is also called gut dysbiosis and can lead to increased blood sugar and insulin levels, and decreased glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.

The Takeaway

As there are many differences between natural and added sugars, there are also many distinctions between artificial sweeteners; not all are created equal, and some artificial sweeteners may affect blood sugar—exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Knowing how artificial sweeteners can impact blood sugar and insulin levels in the short- and long-term can also help you determine which artificial sweeteners to choose.

Learning how to lower blood sugar naturally may help you manage or prevent diabetes and maintain better blood sugar control. Meal planning, preparing healthy meals, and staying active are ways that you can improve not only blood sugar levels, but your overall health and wellness. PlateJoy Health can serve as a tool to help you make these healthy lifestyle changes.

Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN
Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant @ Alena Menko Nutrition
https://www.alenamenko.com/

Alena Kharlamenko is the founder of Alena Menko Nutrition, a food and nutrition blog where she publishes healthful, plant-forward recipes and makes nutrition approachable with easily digestible information. She’s also passionate about gut health and is a Monash FODMAP-Trained Dietitian. When she's not cooking up a storm in the kitchen or behind her computer, she can be found exploring the vast culinary scene of NYC, traveling around the world, or hiking and spending time in nature. You can find Alena on Instagram @thebalancedbite or on Facebook @AlenaMenkoNutrition.

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