Your Health A-Z

Are artificial sweeteners bad for your brain?

A new study suggests that sugar substitutes might increase your risk of dementia and lead to poorer memory and smaller brain volumes. A Mediclinic expert weighs in.

A sugar substitute (artificial sweetener) is a food additive that tastes like sugar but usually has less food energy.

Diet drinks are often touted as being a ‘healthier’ alternative to sugar-laden ones, yet scientists remain divided in their view regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners. To aggravate matters, these sugar substitutes are often hidden in foods purporting to be sugar-free, calorie-free or contain zero sugar, yet they may not be safe for diabetics and those trying to lose weight.

‘Past studies have linked artificial sweeteners to weight gain, obesity and metabolic disease epidemics because they are said to confuse the brain and the body about the caloric value of sweet foods,’ says Ilsabe Spoelstra, a dietician at Mediclinic Bloemfontein. ‘Yet there are just as many studies proving these findings wrong and offering conflicting evidence.’

One new study suggests that people who drink just one diet soda a day are three times more likely to develop dementia and have a stroke than those who don’t. They are also more likely to have poorer memory and smaller brain volumes.

[In this particular study, approximately 4,000 participants over the age of 30 were examined using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and cognitive testing to determine the relationship between drinking diet soda and brain volumes – as well as thinking and memory. The researchers then monitored 2,888 participants age 45 and over for the development of a stroke and 1,484 participants age 60 and older for dementia for 10 years.]

‘Artificial sweeteners are a hotly-contested topic,’ Spoelstra adds. ‘In another study < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085354/> it was shown that aspartame is responsible for oxidisation and free radicals in the body.’

While science hasn’t yet offered a definitive answer about whether artificial sweeteners are good or bad for you, Spoelstra suggests erring on the side of caution – and doing without them. ‘We do know they aren’t good for the microbiome in your digestive system,’ she says, adding that the natural low-cal sweetener Xylitol – or zero-calorie natural sweetener Stevia – is a better option but should also be used in moderation like all added sugars.

‘For someone recently-diagnosed with diabetes, who is used to sugary foods and drinks, Xylitol can help ease them into new habits with the ultimate aim of lowering their added sugar intake as much as possible,’ Spoelstra adds.

References:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085354/

https://www.bumc.bu.edu/busm/2017/04/20/daily-consumption-of-sodas-fruit-juices-and-artificially-sweetened-sodas-affect-brain/

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.