The Truth about Artificial Sweeteners
Table sugar is a common component of many people's diets whether it's poured directly into their coffee or mixed into another product they buy. However, when consumed in excess, it can lead to several health risks, including elevated risk of developing Diabetes and increased chance of weight gain from excess calorie consumption. Because of these risks, artificial sweeteners were introduced as a healthier substitute to regular table sugar.
The average 12oz. can of sugar-sweetened soda contains about 150 calories, with almost all of them coming from sugar. However a 12oz. can of diet soda contains zero calories, so you can see why artificial sweeteners have become so popular. But just because they save you major calories, that doesn’t necessarily make them “healthier”.
There are currently six artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, sucralose and the most recently approved, adventame. The FDA has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia.
The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have even given the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar some credit for its ability to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease.
In response to the AHA and ADA statement, Dr. Christopher Gardner, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University in California added, “While they are not magic bullets, smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help you reduce added sugars in your diet, therefore lowering the number of calories you eat.”
But while they are lowering your caloric intake, what else are they doing to your body?
One major concern over people using artificial sweeteners is that they may replace the lost calories through other sources, thus offsetting the weight loss and potential health benefits. For instance, people might tell themselves “I drank a diet soda, so it’s ok for me to eat a slice of pie.”
Research also suggests that artificial sweeteners may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake and can actually cause us to crave more sweets. In fact, the participants in a San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda.
Another study, carried out on 3682 individuals, examined the long-term relationship between artificially sweetened drinks and weight. After 7-8 years of weight monitoring, results showed that those who consumed artificially sweetened drinks had a 47% higher increase in BMI than those who did not.
Frequent use of artificial sweeteners can also cause changesin the human body, impairing the metabolic response normally generated due to food intake. This leads to a decline in the metabolic boost normally seen after a high calorie intake, making it difficult for your body to use those calories, and thus leading to decreased energy production. Aside from aste receptors in your mouth, there are glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) secreting L cells of the gut mucosa which respond to artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners can alter the insulin response to a meal and even cause a more rapid absorption of glucose through the gut lining by stimulating the GLP-1 cells. This can results in altered appetite and blood sugar.
Even more scary, perhaps, is that giving up artificial sweeteners may not be so easy. Recent animal studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may be addictive. In fact, some studies have exposed rats to cocaine, and then given them a choice between cocaine or saccharine (a popular artificial sweetener). Shockingly, most chose saccharine.
Changing your taste
Another potential downside of artificial sweeteners is that they actually have the potential to change the way we taste food altogether. Artificial sweeteners are much more potent than table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
That means using the same amount of artificial sweetener in your coffee, for example, as you would sugar will give you a much sweeter taste than if you were simply using sugar. This can lead to overstimulation of your sugar receptors and, over time, it can limit your tolerance for complex tastes.
People who use artificial sweeteners frequently may start to find more subtly sweet foods, like fruit, to be less appealing and they may find non-sweet foods, like vegetables, completely unappetizing. This can lead you down a dangerous path of eating more artificially flavored unhealthy foods in place of healthy and nutritional food.
Where does Stevia fall in all this?
Stevia is often renowned as one of the safest low-calorie sweeteners. Stevia comes from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, a naturally occurring, calorie free, sweet plant that has been used for hundreds of years in parts of the world. It’s often referred to as a safe sugar-alternative for people with Diabetes, as it helps keep blood sugar levels in check.
Interestingly, the stevia products found on grocery store shelves, such as Truvia and Stevia in the Raw, do not contain whole stevia leaf. Rather, they’re made from a highly refined stevia leaf extract called rebaudioside A (Reb-A). In fact, many stevia products don’t have much stevia in them at all, with Reb-A composing most of the makeup.
The FDA has only recognized stevia glycosides, such as Reb-A, as safe. They have not approved whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extract for use in processed foods and beverages due to a lack of safety information.
And although stevia is widely considered safe for people with Diabetes, brands that contain dextrose or maltodextrin should be treated with caution. Dextrose is glucose and maltodextrin is a starch; therefore these ingredients add small amounts of carbs and calories.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, much like the artificial sweeteners, stevia is considered to be between 50 to 400 times sweeter than cane sugar. So you don’t need to use as much stevia as you would sugar, to achieve the same sweet taste.
One of the major pitfalls of all artificial sweeteners, and stevia too, is that they provide no nutritional value. However, there are various natural sweeteners, rich in vitamins and minerals, which can be used instead of artificial sweeteners. Some great examples include:
Honey: contains probiotics that aid in improving the health of the digestive system
Coconut Nectar: derived from the coconut tree blossoms; rich in vitamin C and amino acids
Maple Syrup Molasses and Agave Nectar: liquid sweeteners containing concentrated sugar; contain calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and zinc
Artificial sweeteners are not necessarily bad.
After all, the FDA has ruled the following artificial sweeteners as safe.
- Stevia (natural)
And artificial sweeteners can reduce the number of calories you eat and help you lose weight.
That being said, like most things, artificial sweeteners are safest in moderation. Overuse is what puts you most at risk of changing your body’s response to sweetness or becoming addicted.
To avoid these risks, be sure to mix lots of natural foods into your diet, in addition to processed food chalk full of artificial sweeteners.
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“Stevia: Side Effects, Benefits, and More.” Healthline, Healthline Media, www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/stevia-side-effects#takeaway.
Strawbridge, Holly. “Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-Free, but at What Cost?” Harvard Health Blog, 8 Jan. 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030.