Artificial Sweeteners: Too Good to be True?

Artificial sweeteners sound like a magical food – they are calorie free, pass through our bodies un-metabolized, and do not affect blood sugar. Sounds great right? Well like most things in life, if it sounds to good to be true it probably is, and in the case of artificial sweeteners, overtime we have found that there are actually very little positives to these very unnatural sugar substitutes.

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

So what are artificial sweeteners anyway? Artificial sweeteners are synthetic food additives that add a sweet taste to food, and contain significantly less energy than sugar. They also are much sweeter than regular table sugar ranging from 300 to 600 times sweeter. Even natural sweeteners such as stevia are 200 times sweeter, which while that may sound amazing can overtime cause a decreased sensitivity to naturally sweet tastes, and increase sugar cravings.

What Are The Possible Side Effects

Artificial sweeteners, although deemed safe by the FDA for human consumption, are notorious for causing unintended side effects. Ever wonder what may be causing your gas/bloating? Ever thought that it could be the gum you’re chewing, or your afternoon protein bar? Gas, bloating, and diarrhea are common side effects among people who consume artificial sweeteners, and typically are added to nutritional supplements, sugar-free desserts, and sugar-free gum!

But the side effects don’t stop there. Probably some of the scariest symptoms have to do with neurological side effects like vertigo, headaches, dizziness, and migraines, all of which have been linked back to the consumption of artificial sweeteners.

Lastly, altered taste buds and increased sugar cravings are unintended side effects of artificial sweeteners that now have researchers believing that artificial sweeteners may have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic. This is due to the lack of satisfaction achieved when consuming artificially sweetened food, and increased sugar cravings associated with the consumption of these overly sweet additives. [1,2]

Types of Artificial Sweeteners

While there are many types of artificial sweeteners that have been introduced into our food supply over the past few decades, there are a few key players that we are most exposed to today:

Saccharin: The little pink packet. Saccharin is most commonly known as Sweet’N Low, and is one of the very first artificial sweeteners to be introduced into our food supply going all the way back to the early 20th century. Saccharin is 300 times sweetener than sugar, and was one of the first food additives that Monsanto (a well known agrochemical company) got its start with.

Aspartame: Aka NutraSweet and Equal, Aspartame is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market, and can be found in more than 6000 consumer foods. That is a lot of artificially sweetened food! Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and has been widely debated in regards to its safety.

Sucralose: Or more commonly known as Splenda, is the sweetest of the most common artificial sweeteners coming in at 600 times sweeter than sugar. Similar to aspartame, the safety of sucralose has been widely debated, and many side effects have been reported.

Sugar Alcohols: Xylitol, mannitol, and sorbitol are all considered to be sugar alcohols, which are different from the previous three artificial sweeteners because they come naturally from plant products, and then are altered through a chemical process to create the sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols are less sweet than sugar, but provide less calories. They are most commonly found in nutritional supplements, toothpaste, and gum. The most common side effects of sugar alcohols are gas and bloating.

Stevia: Stevia is a natural sugar substitute that is extracted from the stevia herb plant, and is roughly 300 times sweeter than normal sugar. While stevia may be considered healthier than other artificial sweeteners due to its plant-based origin, it still is highly processed and significantly sweeter than sugar. Some people believe that stevia has a very bitter and strong aftertaste, while others find it to resemble menthol.

Common Hiding Places

Artificial sweeteners have been deeply ingrained into our food supply and so are found in a wide variety of products. The most common places that you are most likely to find artificial sweeteners are in any foods that claim to be low-sugar, “diet”, or sugar-free.

Additionally, artificial sweeteners are added to our toothpaste, gum, and even medicines making them difficult to avoid. The good news however, is that more and more people are beginning to pay attention to the negative affects of artificial sweeteners, and are asking for them to be removed from popular food items.

Healthy Alternatives to Artificial Sweeteners

When it comes to sweetening your food, choosing natural sweeteners is always going to be better than artificial ones your body was never meant to digest. Raw honey is a great natural alternative, which is loaded with other beneficial nutrients, and is a great choice when baking, or for sweetening your morning tea.

Additionally, choosing whole foods like bananas, berries, and applesauce are other great alternatives to artificial sweeteners and table sugar when baking. They also come with the added bonus of fiber, and other nutrients that are beneficial for our bodies.

Lastly, if you still want a 0 calorie sweetener that is a healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners, the best options would be a natural sugar substitute like monk-fruit or stevia. Monk-fruit is derived from a fruit, and is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar making it one of the least sweet of all the sugar substitutes. It also has a more mild taste than stevia, which some people who dislike stevia seem to respond better to.

Ultimately, when choosing whether to consume artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes, it is important to pay attention to how your body responds to these food additives, and consume them in moderation.

References

[1] Yang, Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 83(2), 101.

[2] Brown, R. J., BANATE, M. A., & Rother, K. I. (2010). Artificial sweeteners: a systematic review of metabolic effects in youth. Pediatric Obesity, 5(4), 305-312.