I'll start off by coming clean: During my 30 days of artificial sweetener abstinence, I cheated twice — once by accident and the second time because, hey, I'm human.
I blame my first slip-up on marketing trickery: I figured zero-calorie sweeteners that were advertised as "natural" would be fair game and planned to alternate between Truvia and brown sugar over the course of the month. But after just a few sips of my Truvia-filled coffee on the first day of the experiment, my conscience (in the form of our deputy editor) suggested I do some research before I took another sip.
Sure enough, she was right. I discovered that "natural" is an unregulated marketing term any company can use so long as the product doesn't contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Truvia contains erythritol (a sugar alcohol found in many fruits and fermented foods like wine and cheese), stevia leaf extract, and natural flavors, but I couldn't find info about how processed it is. I did learn that Truvia's manufacturer, Cargill, actually ran into some legal trouble in 2013 for its potentially deceptive marketing of Truvia as a natural sweetener. So I played it safe and steered clear.
I blame my second lapse on my now-fiancé, who proposed just two weeks into this experiment. We celebrated with one-too-many glasses of champagne and a few hours of sleep, so I cured my "yay we're engaged!" hangover the only way I knew how: chugging a cup of coffee with Splenda and two Advil for breakfast, and devouring a slice of greasy pizza and Diet Coke (or, as I like to call it, DC) for lunch. I'm a rule-follower by nature, but I can honestly say this cheat was totally worth it.
Artificial sweeteners have been part of my daily routine since high school, but my relationship with the fake stuff has grown healthier over time. I reached for my first Splenda packet as an insecure 16-year-old, aka the age when any and all zero-calorie products are your BFFL. But in college, the ritual became less about my weight and more about consistency — I was used to my coffee tasting a certain way every morning.
We brushed our teeth just as often as we slurped down our 'guilt-free' sodas.
As for diet soda, I'll admit to a can of ice-cold DC on those extra-sleepy Mondays, which is a mind-boggling improvement from my teen years, when my friends and I went to 7-Eleven after school for a big gulp of DC almost every day. We brushed our teeth just as often as we slurped down our go-to "guilt-free" sodas.
One more moment of truth: My decision to go sans artificial sweeteners for 30 days didn't stem from some deep-seated desire to kick an unhealthy addiction. Studies on its safety have been so mixed and inconclusive that it's hard to say for sure just how bad or good they are are you — they may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but could also help with losing and maintaining weight.
Potential health pros and cons of artificial sweeteners aside, I think we can all agree on one thing: The idea of ingesting a highly processed substance like sucralose that's 600 times sweeter than naturally derived sugar (which, by the way, only contains 15 calories per packet) is kind of insane. In the daily hustle and bustle, it's easy to overlook what consistent consumption of these unnatural sweeteners is doing our tastebuds.
So that's why I decided to make like Ross and Rachel and take a break from Splenda, Truvia, and any other pink, blue, or yellow packets: I wanted my tastebuds to rediscover the joy of natural sweetness. (Plus, my editors dared me to do it, and I love a good challenge.)
On Day 2 of the experiment, my tastebuds were not happy: In a Grande dark roast from Starbucks, a teaspoon of brown sugar wasn't even detectable until those last cloyingly sweet sips. That's one nice thing about artificial sweeteners: They dissolve quickly, evenly distributing their unnaturally high levels of sweetness so that every sip tastes the same. I'm a big fan of that kind of dependability, but I also recognize a little packet shouldn't produce so much consistent sweetness. It's... unnatural.
After two long weeks of stirring in between sips, my tastebuds finally picked up on the brown sugar and I actually started to kinda-sorta enjoy my morning coffee again. I won't lie and say a month free from the fake stuff resulted in my swearing them off forever. There were no radical mind-body transformations to report. My skin didn't clear up, nor did I gain newfound levels of energy.
I did have one revelatory moment that has made me more mindful of how much Splenda I put in my coffee, but it happened after the monthlong experiment: As soon as I took my first sip of sucralose-tainted coffee, I experienced an intense tingling sensation on my tongue I can only compare to a mouthful of Pop Rocks. My tastebuds were literally shocked, and (much to my surprise) not too psyched about the return of their old friend. They had done what I hoped they would: slowly adjusted to lower levels of sweetness.
Ever since that unexpected tingly sip, I've tried to use just half of a packet of Splenda or Truvia in my first morning coffee and a second cup always gets either white or brown sugar. I've made these minor adjustments with my health in mind, sure, but they're primarily for my tastebuds. They deserve to feel satisfied by fruit in all of its naturally sweet glory, and I won't let the manmade stuff trick them into thinking artificial is better.