Artificial sweeteners are almost too good to be true. They taste sweet without the pesky consequences of real sugar. They don’t raise your blood sugar or have any calories because they pass through your gut undigested–hence their more technical name, non-nutritive sweeteners (NNSs). Originally marketed for diabetics, they are now found in so many products it’s hard to keep track. And while their safety has been questioned, they are used by countless people as a way to cut calories. They are even touted to prevent obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. But does consuming NNSs really help you lose weight? Or is their reality as bitter as their aftertaste?
What are non-nutritive sweeteners (NNSs) and where do they come from?
NNSs are chemicals that stimulate the sweet (and bitter) taste buds on your tongue, small intestine, and respiratory system–yes, you have them there too–but pass through you without being broken down and absorbed. Nearly all NNSs were born in a lab by researchers with dirty hands and no fear of death.
It all started in 1897. Imagine you are a graduate student researching new uses for coal tar derivatives. You have terrible hygiene, so you take a lunch break without washing your hands and taste something sweet on your fingers. In a shocking display of throwing caution to the wind, you taste everything in your lab to find the source. Sweet and Lo and behold you’ve just discovered saccharin! It’s 550 times sweeter than sugar. By 1907 you’re making bank. By 1912 your discovery gets banned, only to be brought back in 1917 because of sugar rationing after the war. There is some back and forth about its safety, but by 2010, the EPA removes saccharin from its list of hazardous foods. Now, it’s found in drinks, candies, cookies, and those little pink packets.
In 1937 a different graduate student with bad hygiene was working on a fever-reducing drug when he discovered the sweet taste of cyclamate. (He set his cigarette down on a lab bench and tasted sweetness when he brought it back to his lips.) 30–50 times sweeter than sugar, cyclamate went on to sweeten popular sodas like Tab and Diet Rite. By 1963, it was the most popular NNS in the U.S., and by 1968, Americans consumed over 17 million pounds of…