Sugar Alternatives: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
As humans, we are biologically wired to enjoy sweet-tasting foods. Sugar signals our brain to release neurotransmitters. This means that eating a moderate amount of foods with natural sugar, such as fruit, makes us feel good. Naturally occurring sugars are packed with fiber and nutrients, whereas refined or artificial sugars are not.
The real problem lies with the high amount of added sugar in the American diet found in processed foods and beverages. Excess refined sugar in the diet can increase the risk of chronic disease due to increased blood sugar, increased insulin production and inflammation. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends women and children consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day and men consume no more than 36 grams per day.
The rising concern of added refined sugar in the American diet led to the development of artificial sweeteners. These non-nutritive sugar alternatives provide the benefit of sweetness while containing no calories or effect on blood sugar.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners deemed safe for commercial use: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. These “sugars” are synthetically made to mimic the taste of sugar with no calories. Despite being calorie-free, recent research is indicating that the consumption of artificial sweeteners is associated with long term weight gain.
According to Dr. Ludwig, an Obesity Specialist at a Harvard affiliated Children’s hospital in Boston, non-nutritive sweeteners are more potent than natural sugar. Artificial sweeteners are 200-13,000 times sweeter than table sugar. As a result, they overstimulate taste receptors. The overstimulation of taste receptors can lead individuals to find semi-sweet foods less palatable, including nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. This can lead to overconsumption of artificially sweetened foods over highly nutrient dense food choices.
Are Artificial Sugars Safe?
Fear circulated around artificial sweeteners following animal studies linking artificial sweetener consumption to cancer, but recent research has found no carcinogenic effects in humans. This recent research is supported by the National Cancer Institute.
Although there is no cause for concern related to cancer, a study from the ADA's journal Diabetes Care found that individuals who consume diet sodas containing artificial sweeteners daily had a 36% increased risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Another study published in the journal Nutrients, found that artificial sweeteners interact with T1R3 taste receptors causing negative effects to the intestinal wall. Further, a study from the Annals of Epidemiology found that individuals who routinely consume artificial sweeteners were found to have a different diversity of gut microbes than those who do not.
Altered taste reception, metabolic function, and gut microbiota may indicate why calorie-free artificial sweeteners may have a negative effect on healthy weight management and risk of chronic disease.
The Best Way to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
You don’t have to entirely shun diet foods or beverages. Limiting your consumption and focusing on consuming better-quality sources of sugar may outweigh the negative side effects of its synthetic counterparts.
As mentioned before, naturally occurring sugars from foods like fruits and dairy products, also contain beneficial fiber and nutrients that support health. One of my favorite ways to naturally sweeten baked goods or smoothies is by using bananas or dates.
Other ways to naturally sweeten foods or beverages without adding table sugar include using raw honey, pure maple syrup, raw coconut sugar, or agave. These options contain healthy prebiotics and vitamins and minerals that support optimal health. It is important to note, these alternatives still contain calories and sugar and should not be over-consumed or may have a negative effect on your health.
Bottom Line: Small amounts of artificial sweeteners in the diet may not pose any major health concerns, but recent research also indicates it may be less beneficial for healthy weight management and chronic disease prevention than having the real thing.
Learn more about artificial sweeteners and other wellness programs offered by Wellness Workdays.
Written by: Lexi Nazzaro, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern