You Can’t Fool Your Brain with Fake Sugar


So you switched to artificial sweeteners to cut back on sugar? That’s swell, but prepare to be hungry.

A new study shows that your brain doesn’t like being tricked. If you eat or drink foods that contain sugar replacements, your brain doesn’t get the energy reward it expected. And in retaliation, your cranky brain produces signals that amplify your desire to eat more.

That doesn’t mean that cutting back on sugar isn’t a good thing, just that you should skip the chemical fakes and choose real food.

For the study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers from Sydney University fed fruit flies and mice a diet comprised of foods spiked with the artificial sweetener sucralose. The animals ate 30 percent more calories that they did when they were fed naturally sweetened food.

“These findings further reinforce the idea that ‘sugar-free’ varieties of processed food and drink may not be as inert as we anticipated,” Herbert Herzog, a professor at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, said in a press release. “Artificial sweeteners can actually change how animals perceive the sweetness of their food, with a discrepancy between sweetness and energy levels prompting an increase in caloric consumption.”

Apparently, sucralose convinced the brains of both flies and mice that they were starving. Eating more wasn’t the only symptom, the animals also engaged in other starvation-associated behaviors such as hyperactivity, insomnia and restless sleep.

What is true for flies and mice is not necessarily true for humans. But if you have found that sugar-substitutes make you crave snacks, science seems to back you up.

And in case you were wondering, your teeth aren’t fond of fake sugar either.

Sugar – the real stuff – is absolutely bad for your teeth, as it feeds some types of oral bacteria that then release acids which weaken tooth enamel – the hard outer coating of your teeth. This dental erosion process creates tiny, shallow holes (cavities), which often get deeper and bigger over time, as the decay works its way down to the soft pulp inside the tooth. If you’re not getting regular checkups and cleanings, it’s a safe bet you’ll be in the dentist’s chair, awaiting a root canal, at some point in the near future.

Logic would seem to indicate that you can swap sugars for artificial sweeteners, and spare your teeth without having to give up sweet tastes. But a study from the University of Melbourne’s Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre has found that sugar-free foods and drinks can cause significant damage to tooth enamel, too.

The researchers tested 23 different kinds of beverages, including sodas and performance drinks, finding that drinks with acidic additives and low pH levels can damage the enamel, regardless of whether it contains sugar or not. For example, the research team found that sugar-free drinks like Diet Coke can soften enamel by 30 to 50 percent.

Tests of eight brands of sports drinks showed that all but two of them caused significant loss and softening of the enamel surface. But the damage caused by sports drinks was significantly less severe than with a soft drink such as Diet Coke.

Water, on the other hand, actually made the surface enamel harder.

“Many people are not aware that while reducing your sugar intake does reduce your risk of dental decay, the chemical mix of acids in some foods and drinks can cause the equally damaging condition of dental erosion,” professor Eric Reynolds, one of the study authors and the CEO of the Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre, said in a statement.


Sweeteners aren’t solely to blame for dental problems caused by sugar-free drinks. Ingredients such as citric acid and phosphoric acid, used to give a tangy taste to sodas, sports drinks and juice blends, are also very effective at softening dental enamel.

Sugar-free foods such as candies and other fruit-flavored snacks can include citric acid and phosphoric acid as well. The University of Melbourne’s Oral Health researchers tested 32 commercially available sugar-free candies and found that fruit-flavored snacks and drinks tend to cause more dental damage than the mint-flavored ones.

To protect your healthy smile, limit your intake of artificially flavored foods and drinks, especially those containing citric or phosphoric acid. If you opt to partake, rinse with water and wait at least an hour before brushing your teeth. Brushing while enamel is in a soft, weakened state will cause further damage.

Sugar-free gum is ok from a dental health standpoint. Numerous studies have found that it can stimulate saliva flow, rinse away acids and even re-harden softened tooth enamel. Stick to the minty-fresh flavors and be aware that chewing sugar free gum just might make you hungry.

At-home dental hygiene is critical for oral health. But regular checkups and professional cleanings are just as important. And if you’ve been putting off seeing your dentist due to budget issues, dental savings plans provide savings of 10%-60% on a wide variety of preventive dental care —including root canals and crowns. Find out more about dental savings plans at, or by calling 1-800-238-5163.


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