Articles / Nutrition Articles

Hidden Artificial Sweeteners – The Bitter Truth

artificial sweetner truth

When you think of artificial sweeteners, there are probably a number of different varieties that come to mind.  One of the most popular is aspartame.  Aspartame is a food additive that has become very controversial over the past 22 years since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for use.  This artificial sweetener was discovered on accident during an experiment for the development of an ulcer medication.  It turns out it tasted sweet (yes, the chemist actually tasted his concoction after mixing it with his finger) and there was a market for artificial sweeteners at that time.  After saccharin’s side effects came to light, it opened up doors for this controversial product to bountifully be used and for many years of debate.

More recently, another artificial sweetener on the market is Splenda (sucralose).  This product is one that is discussed more in depth later on.  Some other brand name sweeteners that are out there, but probably used less often now than they use to be, are NutraSweet (aspartame), Sweet’N Low, Sweet Twin, and Equal (saccharin).   Spotting these sweeteners on a label is easy due to the common brand names.  What is not easy is spotting other chemicals that are used as sweeteners that lack a common name.

To the uninformed consumer, deciding which products to purchase can be confusing and overwhelming.  The marketing departments of food companies are very good at what they do and target the average shopper with their “health” claims of being low-fat, non-fat, low sugar, sugar free etc. because we are drawn to them with hopes of better health, and more importantly to many, a smaller waist line.  What most people do not know is what these terms actually mean.  For now we are going to focus on what happens to a product when the sugar is reduced.

Think of a bowl of ice cream.  It is sweet from the sugar and savory from the fat that it contains.  I am sure you have seen the Breyer’s commercials that show the image of a bowl of strawberry ice cream on a table with the actual ingredients shown right next to it: milk, cream, strawberries, and sugar.  I looked up the ingredients and they are, for the most part, correct.  They are listed on the label as follows (this is directly copied off of MILK, STRAWBERRIES, SUGAR, CREAM, WHEY, TARA GUM (which is a natural thickener).  If you opt for the natural vanilla flavor, it literally is just minus the strawberries.  Now you have the image of this pure and simple ice cream so when you go to make your purchase, you feel pretty good about your indulgent treat.

Next you get to thinking about the sugar or fat because as a society, we are over consumed with the thought of the sugar and fat percentage in our foods rather than the ingredients, so our mind takes a left turn.  Now rather than opting for the strawberry or vanilla ice cream we saw in the commercial with the fairly accurate listing of ingredients, we stick with the Breyer’s but reach for an alternate variety because we are always told that “sugar is the enemy.”  For this example we will look at the Vanilla No Sugar Added flavor.  Again, these ingredients are copied directly off Breyer’s website:


Suddenly by reaching for what we would think is only minus one ingredient, we are actually adding 15 ingredients!  Of these 15 ingredients that are added, the majority of them are far from being natural.   Remember, when the sugar and/or fat are removed or reduced in a product, the taste and texture must come from somewhere else.  Lets take a look at the ingredients that are in this “healthier” alternative ice cream.

Polydextrose: sugar, fat, and starch replacer synthesized from dextrose and sorbitol (sugar alcohol), which is metabolized slowly and is another sugar replacement.

Sorbitol: This is the second time this ingredient is added to this food and unless you know what you are looking for, you would never know it.  Sorbitol is also used as a laxative and in enemas and rids the body of potassium in certain dietary combinations.  Additionally, it is shown to aggravate gastrointestinal conditions causing severe abdominal pains even in small amounts.

Maltodextrin: A sweet food additive that is as rapidly absorbed as sugar produced by enzymatic hydrolysis from starch sugar.  People with diabetes, celiac, and starch allergies should be especially cautious when consuming anything that contains this additive.

Glycerin: This can be either derived from animal or vegetable fat and has many more uses than just a food additive (such as an explosive).  This is another additive that contains sorbitol.  So we can now increase our sorbitol count to 3.  This tastes sweet but does not cause a blood sugar spike.  It is added to food for the sweet factor and also for its ability to retain moisture.  This is also why it is used in topical moisturizers.  This is not a calorie free sweetener.  It actually contains more calories than table sugar and it not as sweet meaning it takes even more to get the same bang for your buck.  Consuming too much can cause a laxative effect since it is a sugar alcohol.

Cellulose Gel: This is used as a thickener in many products due to its gelling effects and can also be used as a fat and sugar replacer.  It provides the “mouth feel” and is derived from the cell wall components of plants so industrially it is considered a natural product.  To extract cellulose gel from cellulose, it is treated with chloroacetic acid in different degrees (this acid, when ingested by mice, caused neurological dysfunction). This is another product that, when over consumed, can cause intestinal issues.  This ingredient is very common, so overconsumption may be easier than you would think.

Mono and Diglycerides: These are used as emulsifiers in packaged foods to extend the shelf life.  These help to blend oils and water which are two things that do not typically blend well.  The tricky thing about these is that you do not know if they are made from a plant or they are derived from animal fat so you could be consuming trans-fats without knowing it.   The government requirement that all foods containing trans-fats be labeled with the content only applies to lipids (such as triglycerides) but not to emulsifiers such as monoglycerides and diglycerides.

Guar Gum:  This is a fiber derived from the seed of the guar plant that is used in food as a thickening agent.  It is also used in the same manor in skin lotion.  Another use for this is the treatment of diarrhea.  On the flip side it can also be used as a laxative.  Because of its laxative effect, diarrhea is a common side effect along with increased gas production.  Taking penicillin? Guar gum can actually decrease the antibiotics absorption into the body.

Tara Gum:  Like mentioned before, tara gum is an additive used as a thickener and it derived from the tara bush.  This additive is not digestible and is very hard to find information and studies claiming it’s really as safe as it seems.

Xanthan Gum:  This is one of the more popular additives in the list and it is seen very frequently on food labels.  Mixing fermented sugar with particular bacteria to make the sugar like substance produces xanthan gum.  It is used to make medicine, food, and toothpaste.  When ingested, it swells in the intestine and causes a lubrication effect, which may cause a faster working intestine than desired.  Have you ever seen xanthan gum powder?  If you are to be exposed to it you can expect the possibility of flu-like symptoms, respiratory irritation, and lung issues.

Cellulose Gum:  This acts as another thickening agent and also prevents sugar from crystallizing.  It comes from cells walls of woody plants and is extracted using the same kind of acid found in vinegar.  If consumed in large quantities, it can also cause a laxative effect.

Carob Bean Gum:  Used as a flavoring agent and a chocolate replacer.  This is made from the ground endosperm of the seed from the fruit of the carob, or locust, tree.  During the processing of the seeds, isopropanol and/or ethanol are used.  At this time, there are no significant side effects noted.

Natural Flavor:  This is a term that is used loosely.  If you are a vegan or vegetarian or have any sort of allergies to animal products, proceed with caution.  Also, natural flavor by no means indicates that it is organic.   Title 21, Section 101, part 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations lists out all of the ingredients that can be considered as a natural flavor.  Essentially what it says is that anything that grows (both plant and animal) that is used for flavor enhancer and not nutritional value can be listed as a natural flavor.  Some examples are: essential oils, seafood, bark, leaves, and fermented dairy products.

Acesulfame Potassium: This is an artificial sweetener that is around 200x sweeter than sugar.  It is misleading due to the word “potassium.”  While it does actually contain potassium, it is combined with acetoacetic acid.  Additionally, methylene chloride is used as a solvent during the manufacturing process.   Methylene chloride is also commonly used as a paint stripper, degreaser, and propellant gas.  The body cannot break down this sweetener and can have negative effects on the body’s metabolism.   Side effects of this sweetener include headaches, mental confusion, visual impairment, and hypoglycemia.  That is only naming a few.

Sucralose (Splenda Brand): This is a calorie-free, artificial sweetener that is up to 600x sweeter than sugar.  It is seen in many prepackaged foods as well as in small packets for easy additions to beverages.  This is made from sucrose (sugar) and also has two more ingredients added for filler: dextrose and maltodextrin (I found the ingredients on Splenda’s website in the faq’s section and not listed in the nutritional information).  If you read it, it actually states “These ingredients provide so few calories per serving that all SPLENDA® No Calorie Sweetener Products meet the Food and Drug Administration’s criteria for no-calorie foods (<5 calories/serving).”  Technically this is NOT a no calorie food, they are just allowed to label it as such since it meets the FDA’s criteria.  So technically, you are eating added sugar.  Dextrose is a form of sugar and maltodextrin is a processed form of starch (usually corn or potato).  This is all very deceiving if you want to get technical.  These artificial sweeteners in Splenda also have side effects of gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and gas.

Vitamin A Palmitate: This is a synthetic version of vitamin A and is commonly seen in dairy products that have had some fat removed.  The palmitate makes it stable in dairy products.

Annatto: This is added as a coloring agent and is derived from the annatto plant.  It is also used to make medicine and treat diarrhea and fevers.

Out of the ingredients listed above, notice how many are actually artificial sweeteners and the similar side effects they have. By looking at the label, most people would only notice one sweetener because the brand name is listed out.  Labels can be deceiving.  While I am not a promoter of refined sugar, we all indulge on occasion.  Knowing what you are consuming when reaching for a “no sugar added” product is just as important as being aware of the sugar itself.



American Council on Science and Health  (

Code of Federal Regulations (

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (

Center for Science in the Public Interest (

Breyer’s Official Website (

The Mayo Clinic (

ashley clawson


One Comment

  1. Pingback: What Your Food's Content Claims Really Mean - Steelhouse Guided Fitness Systems

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *