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Non-Nutritive Sweeteners: Friend or Foe?

Written by: Anshena Latimore, MS SRMC Dietetic Intern
Thursday April 22, 2021

Spring is finally here! As the rain comes in to wash away the remnants of winter and pollen, our surrounding environment begins to prosper with new blooms, fruits, veggies, and ideas! 

More than ever, there has been a huge public awakening about healthy eating behaviors and how these behaviors affect one’s quality of life. Many “healthy” food alternatives are being developed to substitute for natural food ingredients that have been deemed “harmful.” Instead of reducing our intakes, we tend to switch to another food product. 

Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) are a great example of such food alternatives. These sugar substitutes were formulated to provide zero calories and add a higher level of sweetness to foods and beverages that would typically require large amounts of added sugar.1 Looking at many ‘diet’ or low-calorie food products, you’ll be sure to find one or two of these sweeteners. 

While these NNS are great for reducing added sugar intake, are they as healthy as they seem?

Recently, studies have investigated the link between NNS  and the possible negative implications that high consumption may have in the development of adverse health outcomes. According to researchers, three proposed mechanisms may affect the development of such conditions. 

The first mechanism that may be affected is the interaction between the brain and the body’s sweet taste receptors. When nutritive sweeteners are ingested, the brain recognizes the sweetness and associates this taste with appetite and caloric intake.2  In animal studies, researchers found that repeated exposure to highly sweetened foods may reduce the body’s sensitivity to sweetness, alter taste receptors, and respond to these signals.2  NNS may be at least 200 times sweeter than sucrose. If this mechanism is proven true, large consumption of these sweeteners could cause significant damage to the body’s response system to sweetness. 

The second mechanism focuses on the interaction of NNS and the gut’s natural bacterial flora. Researchers found that high intakes of NNS negatively affected the natural balance between the “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria, leading to glucose intolerance, weight gain, and inflammation.3  To ensure that NNS caused these adverse effects, researchers placed fecal matter from the affected mice into germ-free mice that later developed glucose intolerance.2  Our gut’s microbiota is highly individualized and is based on our environment, food intake, and natural biological makeup. Any alterations can impact our health, exacerbating the risk of developing chronic diseases. 

The third mechanism assessed how NNS might impact the body’s natural response to sugar. When consuming any carbohydrate-rich foods, the body anticipates receiving nutrients and energy. Because NNS do not attribute any energy, the body may become “confused” when it does not receive its usual payment from the sweet taste of foods and beverages.2 According to the researchers, this confusion may result in increased food intake (so the body can finally receive these nutrients and energy) resulting in weight gain and an impaired response to sweetness.2

Though this research has only been conducted with animal models, can you guess why it would be important for RDs and future RDs?

If you are thinking about the future implications it can have on our diet, we are thinking along the same lines! 

In this profession, we focus on ensuring that our community has the educational resources and skills to develop healthy dietary behaviors that can increase the quality of their lives. As we transition into a period in which the general population is hungrier for healthy foods and nutrition information, we must be aware of ongoing research that impacts some ingrained food perceptions. 

NNS are viewed as a healthy alternative to sugar, but is this true?  As further research is done, it is essential that we prepare ourselves for possible implications on our food preferences, our perceptions, and our approach towards sugar alternatives.  


  1. Natural Agricultural Library. Nutritive and Non-nutritive Sweetener Resources. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published 2021. Accessed April 13, 2021.
  2. Liauchonak I, Qorri B, Dawoud F, Riat Y, Szewczuk MR. Non-Nutritive Sweeteners and Their Implications on the Development of Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients. 2019; 11(3): 1-19. 
  3. Walbolt J, Koh Y. Non-nutritive Sweeteners and Their Associations with Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. J Obes Metab Syndr.2020; 29(2):114–123.