The answer may be yes, according to a new study.
"People are generally consuming non-nutritive sweeteners believing they are a 'healthy choice', but this may not be true," said research scientist Meghan Azad of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Azad authored a paper that reviewed a number of studies on the potential downside of artificial sweeteners on weight and health.
"This is especially important given the widespread and increasing consumption of artificial sweeteners in the general population, and the increasing use of artificial sweeteners in our food supply," Azad said.
According to Azad, over 40% of adult Americans consume no-cal sweeteners on a daily basis, and studies that measure the sweeteners in blood and urine show that many people who report not using artificial sweeteners are unknowingly consuming them.
It's the latest assault in the ongoing debate over artificial sweeteners and their impact on health -- a debate that began when one of our most popular foods, sugar, turned sour in terms of health.
Sugar -- how can something so good be bad for us?
The FDA says all five approved sweeteners are safe as long as they are used in moderation. That means no more than 23 packets a day of Splenda, Sweet One or Newtame, 45 packets a day of Sweet'N Low, or 75 packets a day of Equal.
Sounds doable. So besides weight gain, which isn't yet proven, why do so many people still consider artificial sweeteners dangerous?
Here's a history on where we've been and where we stand on today's major artificial sweeteners. Get ready, it's a roller-coaster ride.
1879: First artificial sweetener, saccharin, is finger-lickin' good-for-you
That's one version of the story. Another account says Fahlberg's boss, Dr. Ira Remsen, was the diner who forgot to wash up before eating. Regardless, it was Fahlberg who realized the commercial viability of saccharin as an inexpensive sugar substitute that isn't metabolized by the body, has no calories and doesn't cause tooth decay. He soon applied for patents and began offering saccharin in powder and pill form as a "nonfattening" alternative to sugar.
1908: Weight-watching President Roosevelt keeps saccharin from being banned
The charge was led by Dr. Harvey Wiley, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chemical division. Wiley was well known for his "Poison Squad," a group of civil servants who were given free room and board if they would eat food heavily laced with widely used chemical preservatives, including saccharin. Wiley then studied their urine and feces samples to test the impact on the body.
Wiley didn't give up, and he was able to get saccharin banned from use in processed foods, but direct sales to consumers were permitted. As the years went on, science couldn't find any hard evidence that saccharin was harmful, and widespread sugar shortages during World Wars I and II fanned consumer desire.
1937: Diabetics rejoice as cyclamate meets saccharin
But cyclamate's biggest role was in cutting the bitter, metallic taste of saccharin. Normally added at a ratio of 10 parts cyclamate to 1 part saccharin, that preparation became the basis of the popular brand Sweet'N Low and was soon sold in millions of snack foods and diet sodas. In 1958 the FDA gave cyclamate GRAS status -- Generally Recognized As Safe.
1977: Warning: Saccharin will give you cancer, if you're a lab rat
Congress -- pushed partly by lobbyists in the food industry, partly by a public outcry against losing access to the noncaloric sweetener -- took a softer approach. Instead of a ban, Congress decreed in 1977 that any food sweetened with saccharin must carry a scary warning label: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals."
2000: Saccharin will not give you cancer, even if you're a lab rat
1965: Another accidental find, in many ways 'Equal' to its predecessors
Chemist James M. Schlatter was looking for an anti-ulcer drug when he stumbled upon the sweet taste of aspartame by (you guessed it) licking his finger. A mix of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, two naturally occurring amino acids, aspartame entered the growing artificial sweetener market in 1973. Today we know it as Equal, Nutrasweet or Sugar Twin.
1996: Charges that aspartame causes brain tumors, proven and unproven
1967: Another brave chemist tastes his delicious experiment
What ever happened to safe lab protocol? Yes, acesulfame potassium, also known as acesulfame K, Ace-K, or ACK, was discovered by Karl Clauss and Harald Jensen in Frankfurt, Germany, when they combined fluorosulfonyl isocyanate and 2-butene. Clauss spilled some and then (of course) licked his finger. The tabletop version is called Sweet One, but it's often used in combination with other artificial sweeteners to better mimic the "real" taste of sugar.
1976: Another one bites the sweet dust
Scientists were working with a chlorinated sugar compound in 1976 when one of the researchers decided to (what else?) taste it. Sucralose was born. It's made by replacing three hydrogen and oxygen atoms in sucrose with chlorine atoms, making it about 600 times sweeter than sugar.
Today we know this chlorine-based sugar derivative as Splenda. As the most heat-stable of all the artificial sweeteners, it's popular with food manufacturers.
2002: The final artificial sweetener birth was planned
Unlike those of its predecessors, neotame's was a planned birth. With the market for artificial sweeteners in the billions, scientists around the world were playing with chemicals to find the next big hit. They also wanted to improve on older models: fix the bitter aftertaste and develop higher heat stability and a higher sweetness factor (so you could use less and save money).
Developed by Monsanto, the owners of Nutrasweet, neotame certainly delivered on at least two of those goals: It is heat-stable, and the intensity of its sweetness is 7,000 to 13,000 times greater than sugar. But the sweetness takes a while to develop in the mouth, it lingers longer, and it can have a licorice-like quality, so neotame is most often used in combination with other artificial sweeteners.
2005: Diet sodas cause weight gain
2012: Artificial sweeteners probably safe, but some lingering health concerns
Studying the effects of specific artificial sweeteners is a challenge in today's world, as many soda and food manufacturers create mixtures of sweeteners to mimic sugar and make their products taste unique. So it's hard to tease out which of the sweeteners might be a problem.
2017: More evidence of weight gain
A review by Meghan Azad and her colleagues, published in July in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, combed the medical literature for the latest randomly controlled trials about artificial sweeteners and weight. Azad said they found little connection to weight loss except in long-term trials that were sponsored by the artificial sweetener industry.
A separate review of a larger sample of observational studies found people who used artificial sweeteners over time gained weight and had a larger waist circumference, as well as a higher incidence of hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.
"Based on all of the research done so far, there is no clear evidence for a benefit, but there is evidence of potential harm from the long term consumption of artificial sweeteners," said Azad. "This should inspire consumers to think about whether they want to be consuming artificial sweeteners, especially on a regular basis, because we do not know if they are a truly harmless alternative to sugar."
"More importantly," added Azad, "our results send a strong message to researchers and research funding bodies that more studies are needed to understand the long term health impact of artificial sweeteners."
So where does this leave us? The FDA feels you can be pretty darn sure that a moderate dose of the artificial stuff won't give you cancer. If you're a heavy consumer --and that's a lot of sweetener -- that's another story.
As for connections to kidney or cardio problems and weight loss (or gain), stay tuned. We're sure more studies proving (and disproving) those concerns are on their way.
In the meantime, the stance of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is that non-nutritive sweeteners can help limit calorie intake as a strategy to manage weight or blood glucose.