Last Week Recap
Last week we answered some of the most common questions about sugar. But, you asked, what about artificial sweeteners or other alternatives to sugar? What are the effects of these sweeteners on your health, and which ones should you stay away from?
Five FDA-Approved artificial sweeteners
Currently, there are five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners on the market: Sucralose, Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and Neotame.
Is made when chlorine is added to sugar molecules. It is approximately 600 times as sweet as table sugar. Splenda is more heat stable than other artificial sweeteners, so it can be used in baking. However, some studies now claim that ingesting Splenda at high temperatures in combination with fat may produce chloropropanols, a carcinogenic toxin. Studies have also shown that Splenda may not support healthy gut bacteria, which are essential for your body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals, hormone regulation, digestion, elimination of toxins, and your immune function.
Bottom line: Avoid baking with Splenda to be safe. Using sugar substitutes for baking won’t have the same effect, since real sugar is crucial to things like texture and browning of baked goods.
Saccharin (Sweet n’ Low)
Is between 400-600 times sweeter than table sugar, and is often found in baked goods, jams, gum, canned fruit, candy, and salad dressings. Saccharin belongs to a class of compounds known as sulfonamides, which can cause allergic reactions in people who are intolerant of sulfa drugs (a group of antibiotics that includes penicillin). Saccharin can also be found in some infant formula, and some claim that it can cause babies to be irritable and experience muscle dysfunction. It can also leave a bitter chemical aftertaste in the mouth after consumption.
Bottom line: It is probably best to limit exposure of babies, children, and pregnant women to saccharin. However, of the five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners, saccharin is often considered the safest.
Is made from the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and contains methanol as well. It is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar and is the most widely studied (and criticized) artificial sweetener. It is found in gum, breakfast cereals, gelatins, puddings, and over 6,000 foods. Many diet sodas also used to contain aspartame, but many soda manufacturers are switching to Splenda as a sweetener due to the controversial nature of aspartame. Aspartame should not be consumed by people with phenylketonuria, the inability to metabolize phenylalanine, a molecule found in aspartame. Studies show that high levels of phenylalanine can result in brain damage. Neotame (NutraSweet) is chemically related to aspartame but doesn’t contain phenylalanine. It is much sweeter than aspartame, approximately 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar.
Acesulfame potassium, often listed as Ace-K, is 200 times sweeter than table sugar and is one of the least studied artificial sweeteners. Ace-K contains methylene chloride, a known carcinogen. Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can cause headaches, depression, nausea, mental confusion, liver and kidney effects, visual issues, and cancer, and many believe that further testing needs to be done on Ace-K.
Stevia (or Truvia)
Is extracted from the stevia plant and doesn’t contain the same chemicals as the other artificial sweeteners, so it is technically considered a natural sugar substitute, although it is processed before it is packaged and sold. It is 200 times sweeter than table sugar.
So what are the pros to using artificial sweeteners? First, the above artificial sugars can add sweetness to foods without actually adding sugar, and because they are so much sweeter than table sugar, they can be used in much smaller amounts. They also contain negligible amounts of calories (they are essentially calorie-free), which can be helpful for those trying to reduce their overall calorie consumption. They can be used as a temporary solution to wean people off of sugar, particularly among those trying to lose weight. Artificial sweeteners don’t raise blood sugar like regular sugar does, so they can be useful for people managing diabetes or pre-diabetes. Finally, they don’t contribute to tooth decay like regular sugar does, so they are safer for your teeth.
Although artificial sweeteners can be useful as a bridge to help people looking to lose weight reduce their sugar consumption, studies show that this actually may lead to more sugar cravings. When artificial sugar is consumed, it is recognized by the taste buds as sweet, but it confuses the brain, which expects calories after that initial sweetness. When the body doesn’t receive those expected calories, it causes the body to crave more sugar to get those expected calories. This often leads to overeating or binging on sugar after consuming artificial sugars to satisfy those cravings.
The above artificial sweeteners (with the exception of Stevia) are made from man-made chemicals that the body wasn’t biologically designed to process. The body is unable to absorb most of these chemicals, so they sit in your GI tract, causing gas, bloating, or diarrhea. If they are absorbed, the body recognizes them as a foreign substance or toxin, so they are sent straight to the liver for elimination. The liver treats and processes these chemicals much like the way it processes your alcohol intake. Too much of these chemicals can inhibit the liver’s ability to process fats, which can raise cholesterol levels.
Although more research is needed, some experts believe that artificial sweeteners can cause neurological problems, and link them to cancer and other diseases. This link hasn’t yet been proven, and the FDA currently recognizes artificial sweeteners as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) for human consumption. However, most experts agree that more research needs to be done on the health effects of artificial sugars.
So what about natural sweeteners? Natural sweeteners include honey, agave nectar, pure maple syrup, molasses, raw cane sugar, date sugar, and fruit juice concentrate. They are plant-based, so they don’t contain the chemicals found in artificial sweeteners. However, they are much higher in calories than artificial sugars, so they won’t help with weight loss. Nutritionally, these natural sweeteners are similar to table sugar in terms of vitamin and mineral content. Agave nectar may be safer for diabetics to consume – because of its low glycemic index it doesn’t spike blood sugar in the same way as other sugars. However, honey actually has a higher glycemic index and is higher in calories and carbohydrates than regular sugar, so it’s actually a worse choice for diabetics.
Make a treat a treat. Foods or drinks containing any of the above sugars or sweeteners should be consumed in limited amounts. Stevia may be your best bet for a sweetener. It doesn’t negatively impact your gut health, doesn’t contain chemicals like the other artificial sweeteners, is plant-based, and is calorie-free, so it’s a good choice for those looking to lose weight. However, if you’re using sugar substitutes to save calories, be careful not to replace these saved calories with a treat later in the day. Just because a food or drink is sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s calorie-free, and you can still gain weight if you eat too many sugar-free foods. Your best bet is to limit processed foods, which often contain artificial sugars, and focus on eating whole foods instead.