Weekend Musings: Artificial Sweeteners

What’s my deal with artificial sweeteners???


[Brief trigger warning for the following paragraph.]

I gained weight in college. Like, more than the Freshman 15. Having been naturally thin my whole life, I was shocked by the rapid weight gain and felt like I was trapped in someone else’s body. It gave me a sort of identity crisis. I found the motivation to return to my normal weight immediately so I could feel like “myself” again. Being clueless about nutrition, my initial response was to turn to commercial “diet food.”

[Trigger warning over.]

First, let’s talk health.

There are tons of debate over the dangers of artificial sweeteners. Do they cause cancer? Do they truly assist with weight loss? Are they addictive? For the history of artificial sweeteners, check out this comprehensive Fooducate post.

This is my take on it: any food that clocks in at zero calories is suspicious to me (excluding water, of course). Have you seen those zero-calorie Walden Farms products? Ain’t nothing natural about that. No shocker: these products usually contain Splenda. And a million other chemicals.

During my sophomore year of college, as I desperately tried to shed the dozens of excess pounds I had gained the year before, I had a Coke Zero (sometimes two) every day. I ate low-calorie Yoplait yogurt (sweetened artificially). I ate Quaker “Weight Control” oatmeal packets (sweetened artificially). My mom bought Sam’s Club-sized boxes of Splenda packets and we sprinkled them on everything. Everything.

But then I learned the truth. Regardless of whether or not these products actually cause cancer is up in the air, but I read enough to convince me to quit. I wanted to go all-natural. All homemade. All unprocessed. My aspartame-filled Coke Zero was accompanied with caramel color and other artificial crap. That “Orange Crème” Yoplait Light was held together by stabilizers and chemicals (they have since redone their recipe to be aspartame-free–progress!).

By indulging in articifial sweeteners–regardless of how “safe” they may or may not be–I was partaking in an industry that is anything but natural. What would help me lose weight healthily: Coke Zero, or apples?

This should come as no shock to anyone, but eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies helped me return to my regular weight better than those Coke Zeros did, and with the added benefit of fabulous doses of essential vitamins and fiber.

I gained energy from natural calories, not from caffeine. Calories are not the devil.

Blood Orange and Berry Oatmeal by the Oatmeal Artist #vegan

I do believe artificial sweeteners are addictive.

When I decided to quit artificial sweeteners cold turkey Tofurkey, I felt the withdrawals immediately. I had never experienced a migraine before, but a few days after cutting every single source of artificial sweetener from my diet (some sources claim they exist in around 600 products!), I suffered piercing headaches for nearly a week.

This phenomenon is not uncommon: a quick Google search reveals that many Splenda-quitters experience blinding and insufferable headaches, in addition to other withdrawal symptoms.

My week of migraines was enough motivation for me to switch to an unsweetened life. What kind of chemicals had I been poisoning my body with? From that point on, my food gained its flavor from real foods. Fruits. Vegetables. A dash of salt and pepper. Fresh herbs. Real flavor enhancers.

If it’s so dangerous, why is it allowed on American shelves?

If you’re at all familiar with politics, particularly food politics, the following will come as no surprise:

Aspartame gained FDA approval while it was owned by Donald Rumsfeld, who was at that time the CEO of the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Company. Rumsfeld earned millions of dollars by marketing the product as NutraSweet, and when medical research into the product confirmed the risk of brain tumors, Rumsfeld simply hired another FDA board member to overturn the ban that the current board had inflicted. (Global Healing Center)

This is common practice across almost all government agencies. Although the FDA and similar agencies are designed to protect consumers and regulate the industry, conflicts of interest are rampant and decisions about what is “safe” and “not safe” are greatly compromised . . . and usually not in our favor. (This is particularly true in the United States; other countries are far more advanced in this regard.)

But aren’t some sweeteners (like stevia) natural?

Did you know that most artificial sweeteners are intensely more sweet than actual sugar? Stevia, for example, is considered 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar. This may not seem like that much of a problem at first glance. After all, that means you can use less of it. But here’s the problem:

Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes,” explains Dr. [David] Ludwig. That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable. (Harvard Health Publications)

This means the more Diet Coke you drink, the more Spenda-sweetened oatmeal you consume, and the more stevia-spiked frozen yogurt you lick, the less appealing that humble plum will be to your taste buds. People who have given up sweeteners of any kind tend to enjoy fruits and vegetables more than those who have not because their taste buds are sensitive and can pick up on the subtle (natural!!!) flavors of roasted asparagus or juicy cherries. Andy Bellatti, M.D., says:

These chemicals (along with vague “flavor enhancers”, as is the case with Pepsi Next) assault our taste buds and accustom them to extreme flavors that can never be replicated by real food. It’s part of the reason why whole, minimally processed foods — even when prepared well — “lack a punch” to many people, leading them to seek out foods high in added sugars. [Read more here.]

It is for this reason that I have eschewed stevia, despite my suspicion that it may in fact be “safe” and “natural.” I like my taste buds the way that they are. Avoiding stevia means avoiding overstimulation of my taste receptors, and that’s the way I like it.

But isn’t sugar unsafe, too?

You bet it is. As someone with IBS, sugar is toxic to my sensitive system. While some view a brownie as a fun occasional treat, I view it as a square of thistles that will tear my intestines to shreds. Many foods trigger an unpleasant reaction from my stomach, but none are worse than sugar.


When I add maple syrup to my oatmeal, I am hyperaware of the consequences. I am hyperaware that any sweetener (refined table sugar or maple syrup or honey) will have negative effects on the body, especially mine.

Because of this, I am more likely to use the absolute minimum amount to achieve the desired result.

A teaspoon of maple syrup on top of my oatmeal will hardly affect my sensitive stomach, and the health benefits of the oatmeal itself will–I hope–counteract any negative effects of the small amount of sweetness I added.

When ripping open a Splenda packet, it’s easy to feel a false sense of safety while emptying its calorie-free contents on your oatmeal, but a real sweetener carries a heavier burden. You know you’re adding something with empty calories. You know that sugar is not good for you. This may not hold true for everyone, but using real sweeteners definitely helped me keep my sugar intake in check (aka, that every popular nutritional buzzword: in “moderation”).

Have a great weekend!

About Lauren Smith

Lauren is a herbivore, Slytherin, and connoisseur of oats. She is a former teacher who is currently studying to earn a master's degree in curriculum development. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.

13 Responses to Weekend Musings: Artificial Sweeteners

  1. Aisling says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and learnt so much! Thanks for sharing. Hope to see you do more nutritional/info posts. Loved how objective you kept it and how everything was backed up.

    Love from Dublin! X

  2. Dana says:

    I really liked this post Lauren!
    I’m the kind of person who believes anything can be sweetened with fruit (bananas, dates, etc..). My mom and sister prefer to use stevia packets whenever they have tea. I think that if stevia is what’s causing me to like the taste of a certain tea, then is it worth the money? This is just my opinion.

  3. Kelsey says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post! More nutrition posts please! (: I never really got into artificial sweeteners myself, but I was hooked on candy in high school and college and now I really understand how it can mess up your tastebuds. That’s why I appreciate blogs like yours which try to sweeten with fruit as much as possible. Now that my tastebuds have gone back to liking fruit I don’t want to get them out of whack again!

  4. Christine says:

    I enjoyed this post too! For some odd reason, I’ve always been interested in artificial sweeteners. I even did a project on them in high school. I still use Splenda and have artificially-sweetened yogurt on occasion, although much less often than I did a few years ago. The more I incorporate all-natural, unprocessed foods into my diet, the less tolerance I have for chemicals and heavily-processed things.

  5. As a former Diet Coke addict, I loved this post! I’d never heard that artificial sweeteners can actually change your tastebuds, but it makes sense. During high school I used to drink at least two Cokes a day (if not more) until I finally gave it up in 2012. Then last year I let someone convince me to take a sip of Diet Coke, and it was absolutely disgusting. So I guess my tastebuds must have changed back! (Yay!)
    I’m always glad you don’t use Stevia in your recipes. A lot of people seem to swear by it, but it gives me insane migraines. Also, I just can’t help but be cautious of something that’s 200-300 times sweeter than sugar.
    Sorry for the long comment!

  6. Lyndsey B says:

    Thank you for this interesting read! I’m considering going into the nutrition field, so I love to hear different views and research regarding the complex world of food. I share your thoughts on the topic of sugar, as I’ve learned the effects of artificial sweeteners by experience. I used to douse my oatmeal and coffee with Splenda, falling into the trap that it was ‘healthy.’ But now that I’ve cut it out, my tastebuds shudder at the fake sweet taste, and I love black coffee! I think that people need to be more educated on what they are putting in their bodies.

  7. molly m says:

    Great post! I fortunately never jumped on the Splenda bandwagon but I can relate to having Yoplait yogurts and Quaker “Weight Control” oatmeal packets to lose weight. I love how most of your recipes are sugar free and rely on fruit as the sweetener.

  8. Sandra says:

    As a nutritional science major, I am beyond glad to see posts regarding the misconceptions of artificial sweeteners. I steal clear of all artificial sweeteners because of the adverse effects such as blood sugar imbalance, bloating, fatigue, and migraines. I used to consume a lot of artificial sweeteners via chewing gum. Now that I know how to properly read ingredient statements I was beyond disgusted to see that both sugarless and nonsugarless gum contain aspartame, my worst enemy due to migraines. Not long before reading this post, my mom wanted a piece of my brother’s Big League Chew. Upon hearing that, I immediately reacted by Googleing “big league chew ingredients” because my mom also gets migraines from aspartame. Before I could even get on to Safari, my mom popped the piece of gum in her mouth because my brother insisted that there was no aspartame because it wasn’t sugarless. As my mom started chewing the gun, the first five results showed that Big League Chew had aspartame. Then my mom spat out the gun as if it was poisonous. I hate to brag but I adverted a migraine episode for her. In reference to a post I found via Food Inc. “there are too many people counting calories and not enough people counting chemicals.” I honestly could not have agreed more that post. My sister used to drink Diet Coke because she insisted that it was healthier than regular coke because it had less calories. I beg to differ because ultimately the same amount of calories (200+) would be consumed due to blood sugar imbalance and zero calorie justification. I actually eliminated soda altogether because of the empty calories and bloat. I am terribly sorry to hear that natural sweeteners cause you digestive distress, Lauren. The only silver lining to it is that you can enjoy nature’s sweetness from fruit alone. Please post more nutrition posts!! Nutrition is a keen interest of mine, hence the reason why I chose it as my major; and not enough people are properly informed.

    • Lauren Smith says:

      YAY! I’m glad to get approval from a nutritional science major. I’m honored. And yes, it’s crazy what aspartame slips into. Several years ago I was taking a chewable form of Dramamine (I don’t remember what brand it was) before a flight. When I looked at the ingredients, I saw aspartame. WTH?! Even if they had sweetened it with sugar, it’s a tiny pill. I think I can handle the 10 extra calories of sugar, for Pete’s sake.

  9. Cassie says:

    OMG! I LOVED this article! Artificial sweeteners are so detrimental to your health and it’s really sad that our consumerist industries market them to young kids and adults. They are just as if not more addictive than drugs. They obviously shouldn’t be illegal but there really needs to be a major emphasis on not eating or drinking them at all!

  10. Anne says:

    Hi! thanks for this article. I’ve been reading up more on artificial sweeteners lately and they’re really the last step towards making my diet go from ‘reasonably healthy’ to ‘healthy’. I drink a lot of diet coke, and I use a spoonful of sweetener in my oatmeal in the morning and in my greek yoghurt snack in the afternoon.

    I’ve been cutting back the diet coke by replacing it by various naturally sweet teas (tea with cinnamon, tea with mint and cinnamon and herbal teas), and only drinking a glass or can when I get a headache (whether it’s the sweeteners or the caffeine I don’t know), which will hopefully get less and less common to the point where I have only a glass or less a day.

    The oatmeal and greek yoghurt sweetener I’ve found harder to replace. One day I had actual sugar in my oatmeal for lack of creativity (I felt like for me right now, it’s still better than sweetener); One day I had honey and today I had half a mashed banana. They’re all considerably less sweet than my sweetener sweetened bowl, but I guess I’ll have to get used to that. I was wondering if you had any other ideas for sweetening my oatmeal (and yoghurt), other than the obvious maple syrup/honey or mashed banana?

Leave a Reply

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