It is pretty clear that sugar is not healthy. Many swap sugar with artificial sweeteners but this is not likely the answer either. While I do try to limit my added sugar intake, I avoid artificial sweeteners altogether.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners, are synthetic products used to sweeten food in place of sugar or other nutritive sweeteners. They have gained tremendous popularity due to their low- or zero-calorie content.
The FDA has approved 5 artificial sweeteners: acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharine, and Sucralose. They are found in processed and packaged foods, predominantly items advertised as “diet”, “low sugar” or “no added sugar”. This includes foods such as diet pop, desserts, protein powders, and breakfast bars). They are promoted as a safe method to assist with weight loss and control blood sugar levels. However, over the years many studies have demonstrated otherwise.
what the studies show
The safety of artificial sweeteners has been a controversial topic for decades. Despite being listed on the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe list, some studies have shown otherwise, associating artificial sweeteners with multiple diseases and health concerns. Specifically, consuming 2 or more servings of artificial sugar-containing diet pop has been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease and chronic kidney disease in comparison to drinking <1 serving per month. In another study, sucralose (Splenda) was shown to increase both insulin and glucose levels, despite its zero-calorie attribute.
Artificial sweeteners have also been shown to alter the gut microbiome in mice studies. Over an 11-week period, mice fed water laced with glucose and saccharin developed an unhealthy micobiome, which led to glucose intolerance. The researchers then transferred the unhealthy gut bacteria to mice with a sterile gut — these mice also developed glucose intolerance. After giving the mice antibiotics to wipe out the bacteria, the glucose intolerance resolved. After further analyzing the bacteria causing these issues, the researchers determined these bacteria had already been linked to obesity in humans!
Zero-calorie natural sweeteners, such as Stevia, erythritol, monk fruit and xylitol, have been gaining popularity in the health space as healthier alternatives. Unlike some of the above mentioned artificial sweeteners, Stevia has shown minimal effects on blood glucose. According to this evaluation, stevia has a “low glycemic index and, in the doses tested, is not cytotoxic nor has acute or chronic effect on blood sugar, which makes it a safe sweetener.”
It is important to mention that not all stevia products are created equal. Despite advertising products as stevia, inferior brands add fillers such as sugar, dextrose, or sugar alcohols. Therefore, be sure to check the ingredients list prior to purchasing a product.
Erythritol and xylitol are known as sugar alcohols. They are lower in carbohydrates and calories than regular table sugar, so will have a minimal impact on blood sugar. However, when consumed in large amounts, they may cause gastrointestinal issues such as gas and diarrhea.
The overconsumption of artificially sweetened products has the potential to cause detrimental health concerns. Using stevia, or other natural sweeteners may be a healthier alternative when attempting to lower carbohydrate and caloric intake. Whole food natural sweeteners are typically my go-to when making the occasional treat, and can be used in small amounts in place of table sugar. These include coconut sugar, local raw honey, dates, or maple syrup.