All you need to know about Artificial Sweeteners
Written by Allison Canty
on September 05, 2018
Artificial sweeteners have been the target of a lot of undue criticism lately. Despite being in the grips of the highest obesity and diabetes rates ever seen, we’re still resilient to sugar alternatives – but should we be?
Today, we’re going to discuss what artificial sweeteners are, what they can do for you, and whether or not you should be concerned about their effects. By the end of this article, you’ll know everything you need to make an informed decision on what to put in your body!
Why Avoid Sugar
Before we start, you might want to ask why you should even consider artificial sweeteners – what’s wrong with the alternative, sugar?
There’s nothing inherently bad about sugar, but we eat far too much of it in English-speaking societies. Our foods are filled with added sugars, we over-indulge in sugary treats, and we underestimate just how much effect this has on the body.
When you’re eating too much food, and particularly too much refined carbohydrate, you’re going to put yourself at an increased risk of diabetes. Over-eating brings the risk of obesity, while too much sugar increases diabetes and heart risk by de-sensitising your body to insulin. This is a crucial hormone for health and wellbeing and becoming resistant can be catastrophic for your health.
Type-2 diabetes is one of the most common killers and is unquestionably the result of the lifestyle we lead: too much junk food, not enough exercise. This is the main reason to avoid too much sugar and seek alternative sweeteners: the risk of death and disability it brings!
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Do you know how artificial sweeteners work – or even what they are?
The reason we’ve experienced a lot of scare-mongering around these compounds is because most people don’t have a clue what they are or how they work. Simply put, they’re sweet-tasting substances that have no, or nearly-no, calorie value. They are either totally or partially indigestible, meaning they produce a much smaller insulin or bodyweight change when consumed.
Despite the idea that “artificial sweeteners” might drum up of lab coats and harmful chemicals, artificial sweeteners are well-regarded as being safe and healthy for most people. We’re going to discuss this more, but the simple fact is that they wouldn’t be on the market if they were as deadly as sensational headlines or blog posts might make you think.
A few examples
You might have heard of a few artificial sweeteners, but to most people they’re still thought of as a mysterious, manufactured product. The reality is that “sugar replacements” is a more accurate description: they’re not all artificial, and they’re not the type of industrial chemical they’ve been painted as.
Stevia is a totally natural, plant-based sweetener. It’s not as sweet as sugar, but the extracted versions you buy are able in a variety of concentrations – they can get pretty sweet! This is a good example of the type of natural sugar replacements on the market.
Monk is an extract of the monk fruit. It’s another example of an all-natural product (even though that doesn’t matter too much), but what you need to focus on is the fact that the compounds in monk are also antioxidants. Not only are they not sugar, they’re actually great for health and extremely sweet if correctly processed.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol compound. This sounds awful – two of the worst things for your health at once?! Fortunately, it’s not actually either - it’s just a mostly-indigestible fruit extract that is produced on an industrial scale. It passes through your body undigested in most cases, making it equivalent to a sweet fiber.
Allulose is a sugar, but it is incredibly low in energy. This means that it provides far less calories than sugar when compared 1-1, for around 70% sweetness. It’s also one of the most commercially-used sweeteners in the United States, found in many common products. You can think of it as a low-calorie version of sugar.
There are many other examples on the market, but these 4 are some of the most common for commercial and personal use. They’re also a few great examples of how “artificial sweeteners” are just extracts from fruits and other plants. Allulose is the only exception, and even then, it is generally recognised as safe by the FDA.
This is a seal of approval from the FDA itself – a government agency tasked with the simple responsibility of determining if things are safe to eat. This “GRAS” status is only given out after scientific testing and extensive review of the evidence, so it does provide assurance that you’re not at any real risk.
P.S. - SuperFat uses Erythritol and Stevia as sweeteners.
Sweeteners and Blood Sugar
The short answer? No – not if your diet is well-moderated.
Sweeteners do produce a response in your body in terms of hormones, but this isn’t the whole picture.
To start with, the insulin response your body shows in response to artificial sweeteners is nowhere near the amount produced in response to high-carbohydrate foods like white bread or sugary junk foods. The best example might be the humble soda, however: a can of coke would provide 35-40g of sugar (depending on the country you buy it in), while a zero has 0g.
The difference between these is huge and will make an equally huge difference to your health if you consume even one per day as part of a high-carbohydrate, calorie-surplus diet. This is an easy, painless change that can make a big difference to anyone worried about their health or blood sugar.
The second thing you need to consider is that our body is well-conditioned to associate sweetness with sugar. This is a concern for the way that you diet if you’re consuming too much diet soda (something we’ll discuss later), but for most people it simply means that you will respond to sweet tastes on a hormonal level – you’ve just conditioned your body to respond this way.
Busting Myths on Artificial Sweeteners
With the scaremongering surrounding artificial sweeteners, there have come a lot of big claims and myths that need clearing up. They’re the most common questions we get asked about how these substances work, and they deal with some of the big fears and concerns you might have.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Cause Cancer?
To start with, nothing causes cancer other than mutation and cell damage. There’s no single-cause explanation for cancer. There are only risks – and artificial sweeteners aren’t identified as a cancer risk by a body of reliable, valid scientific research. There’s just nothing to prove this.
On the other hand, there is a wealth of evidence linking obesity and poor diet/lifestyle to cancer – something that muddies the waters around artificial sweeteners, diet soda, and health risks. There’s no real risk to using artificial sweeteners (especially those mentioned above), though the alternative does bring serious concerns – both for diabetics and weight management.
These questions came up about Aspartame – the most controversial sweetener on the market. There are two problems with this: as mentioned above, there’s no strong causal evidence that aspartame has carcinogenic effects in humans. There are some questions in rat-models, but these don’t transfer well, and the doses required for results are huge.
Secondly, aspartame use has been decreasing since the controversy started. While it is still present on the market, it isn’t a concern by itself, and it doesn’t represent the entire market – many brands have simply moved on.
To summarise in a single sentence: you don’t have to worry about cancer-risk with artificial sweeteners, though you should be worried about your blood sugar, insulin response, and the risk of diabetes associated with excessive sugar intake!
Do Artificial Sweeteners Cause Digestive Problems?
This one is a little more complicated, but you don’t have to worry:
Artificial sweeteners can cause digestive problems IF you consume too much of them. How much is too much? At least 5, but more likely 10, cans of diet soda.
This is a good example of why moderation should be your number one strategy for dealing with sweet food and drink intake. If you’re replacing an equal number of sugary drinks, this is still a small price to pay, and if you have a normal, moderate intake (such as a can of soda a day) won’t notice any digestive problems unless you’re allergic or hyper-sensitive.
We’d argue that there’s a serious problem with the psychological side of a diet that includes 10s of soft drinks a day. The carbonation alone is going to cause you problems, but yes – technically – dozens of erythritol-sweetened sodas in a single day may cause you discomfort.
Our favourite strategy for avoiding this problem is to not drink so much soda – diet or otherwise.
Will Sweeteners Damage Your Teeth?
Sweeteners in soda have been noted as a cause for concern – too many sodas of either kind (diet or full-sugar) are bad for the enamel of your teeth.
Is this the result of sweeteners? That’s a whole other topic that we really don’t have the time for today – all you need to know is that any form of carbonated drink is bad for your teeth. While sweeteners aren’t as bad as sugar (since they don’t provide the same fuel for bacteria), you should still limit your intake.
As with anything, moderation can be tolerated – a sweetened product is a better alternative – but totally removing carbonation is the best way to deal with this particular challenge.
Are There Any Negatives to Artificial Sweeteners?
There actually are – but fortunately they’re relatively easy to avoid and deal with.
The one that seems to be most prevalent in the actual science (not the opinion of this week’s most popular YouTube nutrition “guru”) is that consuming too many diet beverages can start to undo conditioning of sweetness from satiety.
This Is a bit of a problem, with a few studies on the subject discussing how individuals who consumed a lot of diet beverages wouldn’t get satiety from other sugary foods. It’s easy to see why this might be a problem: it means you’re not going to signal ‘fullness’ as effectively when eating sweet foods.
The first way of dealing with this is, once more, to practice moderation. This isn’t a short-term or easy adaptation to cause. A few diet sodas once or twice a week isn’t going to fundamentally alter your psychological-physiological signalling systems – it takes a routine intake.
The second key point is that a diet shouldn’t be high in both diet sodas and sugary foods. This is obvious to many of us – the point of artificially sweetened foods is to replace the sugary foods that were tripping you up before. This is why you are replacing sugary sodas, rather than just mixing it up – these low-sugar food and drinks were designed to sate sugar cravings while dieting.
If you’re drinking diet soda while also eating 5 slices of cake a day, you’ve both missed the point of a diet soda and become something of a contradiction. Diet sodas adjusting your satiety-signalling is only really an issue if the rest of your diet sucks and you rely on sugary foods!
What's the Verdict?
There’s a lot of misinformation out there – media sources get a lot of attention by making wild claims and mis-representing the science.
It’s not as glamorous to look at the data around these substances, but it brings us to the key truths about artificial sweeteners and foods containing them:
They’re healthier for you than their high-sugar alternatives
They’re not a problem if you consume them in any normal, non-ridiculous quantities
They’re not really ‘artificial’ at all, that whole label is colouring public perception against them
We’re not here to produce crackpot theories, but the sugar industry has a history of incredibly foul play, so we’re not surprised that there has been a lot of negative attention on healthy, plant-based sugar alternatives.
The general guidance you should take from this article is simple: moderation is essential, artificial sweeteners/sweetened foods are a great choice compared to high-sugar alternatives, and the way that your whole diet is structured is far more important than a single can of diet soda! An approach that is strong on these fundamental principles will keep you fit and healthy!
Artificial sweeteners aren’t a magic bullet for weight loss – they’re simply a tool in your toolkit to fend of sugar cravings, keep you on the straight-and-narrow, and help you stick to a healthier diet.