There has been a lot of conflicting information about sugar substitutes over the last decade. Is it good for you or not? Will it help you lose weight or cause you to gain it? Will it give us cancer? Keep reading if you want to know the truth about sugar substitutes based on the latest nutrition science.
The Truth About Sugar Substitutes
So the purpose of sugar substitutes is to satisfy our cravings for something sweet, without the added calories and insulin response that sugar provides. If sugar substitutes are used without overcompensating and eating more calories from other foods later in the day, they have the potential to help reduce your overall calorie and carbohydrate intake. This could contribute to weight loss, better blood sugar control, and other favorable health outcomes. But, as with anything, there are pros and cons. So, let’s jump into that now.
There are several types of sugar substitutes; today we will discuss a few of them: artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners, and sugar alcohols. Each type of sweetener has some sort of controversy or misused research results. I will outline all of that for you below, so you know where we stand on sugar substitutes at this time.
US FDA approved artificial sweeteners:
Acesulfame K (brand names: Sunett and Sweet One): 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). Acesulfame K is calorie free and used mostly for diet drinks, medications, candy, gum. This does not cause tooth decay, which is a plus when compared to sugar. There were some early studies done on rats that potentially linked Acesulfame K to cancer. However, carcinogenicity studies in humans did not have the same results when consuming less than the recommended max dosage. The studies that were done on the rats gave super doses of Acesulfame K so that, when translated to human dosages, would far exceed the possible oral intake in a day. This is how they determined the max dosages for human consumption. Further research is needed on this topic.
Advantame: 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose. Advantame is heat stable, meaning it can be used in baked goods. The FDA performed a thorough review on studies of Advantame’s effect on immunity, reproduction, development, nervous systems, medication interactions, dosages, and carcinogenicity. There were no significant results to indicate that this product is unsafe for consumption.
Aspartame (two brand names: Equal and Nutrasweet): 200 times sweeter than sugar. Aspartame does contain some calories, but because of the sweetness, you are likely to use a lesser amount than you would of sucrose. It loses its sweetness when heated, so it is not suitable for baked goods. This is one of the most studied artificial sweeteners with more than 100 studies proving it’s safety. It has been deemed “safe for the general population under certain conditions” by the FDA. People with phenylketonuria need to avoid this sweetener. Some suggest that aspartame contains toxic methanol which converts into formaldehyde and is linked to lupus, blindness, cancer, seizures, and allergic reactions. Although, research shows that our bodies produce formaldehyde in far greater amounts than what aspartame provides. Another concern for methanol is also related to formic acid, which has not been found in studies where humans eat 50 times the average intake. New studies have emerged that show aspartame may upset the bodies intestinal flora and cause glucose intolerance, but more studies are needed.
Neotame (brand name: Newtame): 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sucrose. It is heat stable, meaning it can be used in baked goods and maintain its sweetness. The FDA has reviewed over 113 studies to determine the safety of this sweetener. There is no evidence that Neotame could be harmful to health.
Saccharin (two brand names: Sweet ‘N Low and Sweet Twin): 200-700 times sweeter than sucrose. Saccharin is mostly used in beverages and table applications. In the early 1970s, saccharin was linked with the development of bladder cancer in laboratory rats. This led Congress to order additional studies on Saccharin and put a warning label on all products containing saccharin. Since, there have been more than 30 human studies that prove it does not produce the same effect in humans, and that saccharin is safe for human consumption. In 2000, the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health concluded that saccharin should be removed from the list of potential carcinogens. Products containing saccharin no longer have to carry the warning label. Although, new research is emerging that shows that saccharin may also effect the intestinal flora and cause glucose intolerance. More research is needed.
Sucralose (brand name: Splenda): 600 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose is a general purpose sweetener. It is also heat stable. The FDA has reviewed over 110 studies to determine it’s safety.
Some products are deemed “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS by the FDA. This means that the substance has been deemed safe for it’s intended use by qualified professionals who analyzed scientific data. It may also mean that the substance has a history of common use in food with no reported issues, in that they are generally considered safe.
Steviol Glycosides(Stevia): 200-400 times sweeter than sugar. “Stevia” as in the sugar substitute derived from steviol glycosides has been determined to be “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. The use of actual stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts is not considered “generally recognized as safe” and their import into the United States is not permitted for use as sweeteners.
Luo Han Guo fruit extracts (monk fruit): 100-250 times sweeter than sucrose. Deemed generally recognized as safe by the FDA.
Sugar alcohols are also considered “generally recognized as safe”. They are not completely absorbed by the body, so over consumption can lead to bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
You may have recently seen the term “net carbs” in relation to these ingredients. They are starting to pop up on nutrition labels with the rise in popularity of “keto” or very low carbohydrate diets. Because fiber and sugar alcohols are not entirely absorbed by the body, marketing experts have decided to pretend as if the carbohydrates that sugar alcohols contain just don’t exist. They will have an additional section on their label called “net carbs”. It will typically be the total amount of carbohydrate in a product less the amount of fiber and sugar alcohols. But, this could be dangerous for people with diabetes or on the medical Keto diet for seizures as these products do actually contain carbohydrates and that number is not omitted simply because the entire amount may not be absorbed by the body.
- Erythritol – 0.2 calories per gram and 60% to 80% as sweet as sugar
- Isomalt– 2 calories per gram and 45% to 65% as sweet as sugar
- Lactitol – 2 calories per gram and 30% to 40% as sweet at sugar
- Maltitol – 2.1 calories per gram and 90% as sweet as sugar
- Mannitol – 1.6 calories per gram and 50% to 70% as sweet as sugar
- Sorbitol – 2.6 calories per gram and 50% to 70% as sweet as sugar
- Xylitol – 2.4 calories per gram and the same sweetness as sugar
There are some studies that suggest that consuming an artificial sweetener could cause you to crave sweet foods more. Your brain thinks that it is going to get a big calorie kick from all the sweetness the tongue is tasting, but then the calories never come. So, the brain sends hormones to cause you to crave sugar more in the hopes that it will get the calories it missed out on. This will lead you to over eat calories and sugars, thus defeating the purpose of the low calorie or calorie free sweeteners in the first place.
Nutrition research is ever growing and ever changing. Currently, there is a lot of exciting research about the gut microbiome and it’s contribution to specific disease states such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Because some research has emerged linking artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes to an altered microbiome, it may not be a bad plan to try to cut back on the amount of these items you consume. More research is needed to say that whether or not, in the long run, these products could be harmful.
The Truth about Sugar Substitutes?
My recommendation would be that whatever your sweetener of choice, choose less of it. That is not to say you can never have another diet Dr. Pepper or a piece of cake. But, it isn’t a bad idea to reduce the amount of sweetness in our diets overall. The more you reduce the use of sweeteners in your meals, the more you will be able to taste the natural sweetness of foods. The truth about sugar substitutes? I think people are a little too obsessive about it.
Nourish your body with things that make you feel your best. If that happens to be a cupcake one day or a tea with Splenda the next, than so be it. Sugar is not the devil and neither are sugar substitutes. It’s just food. And if you are anything like me, you’ll find that once you stop restricting yourself from having certain foods or feeling guilty because you ate something from your “no-no” list, the less those foods will have power over you. They will lose their appeal and instead of being foods you binge on while hiding in the bathroom, they become foods that you can take one bite of and move on.
Because in the end, food is just food. And your body is smart enough to tell you what it needs to best nourish yourself, God made them smart like that. We just need to listen and trust ourselves.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post for The Truth About Sugar Substitutes, for more of my awesome nutrition content, click here.