People who are looking to reduce the amount of sugar in their diet often turn to sweeteners as a healthier substitute. Sweeteners are able to slash calorie content without compromising on taste, making them a popular weight loss solution.
Sweeteners have gotten some bad press in recent years, making many people wonder just how safe it is to make the switch from table sugar. Here, we’re going to uncover the truth about sweeteners and whether or not they pose a threat to your health.
What Are Sweeteners?
While fat was the go-to culprit of the 90s dieting industry, nowadays, people are more concerned with the effect of excess sugar on their health. A high-sugar diet can have much farther-reaching health implications than just weight gain, from high blood pressure and heart disease to an increased risk of type II diabetes.
Both natural and artificial sweeteners are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to sucrose, more commonly known as table sugar. Major soft drink manufacturers and processed food producers also use sweeteners to produce low-fat, low-calorie versions of their products.
Natural sweeteners come straight from sources such as fruits and berries with minimal processing. Fruit juices, molasses, honey, maple syrup, and stevia are all popular natural sweeteners that the FDA recognizes as safe for consumption.
Artificial sweeteners, unlike natural sweeteners, are made synthetically in a lab. While some derive from natural ingredients, artificial sweeteners undergo extensive processing and refining before hitting grocery store shelves. The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners as safe to use, including saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame, and neotame.
Some people confuse sugar alcohols with sweeteners thanks to their taste profile. Sugar alcohols, despite the name, are non-alcoholic, ethanol-free carbohydrates derived from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables.
While sugar alcohols offer a low-calorie alternative to table sugar, they aren’t considered true sweeteners. Unlike ingredients such as stevia or aspartame, sugar alcohols aren’t chemically sweeter than sugar. Typically, they’re used in close to a 1:1 ratio in recipes.
How Do Artificial Sweeteners Work?
We detect sweetness in food thanks to specialized receptors on our tongue designed to fit molecules such as sucrose. Artificial sweeteners work by mimicking these molecules. They fit into receptors that then send a message to the brain, tricking it into thinking it’s detecting sugar.
However, unlike sugar, your body can’t break down sweeteners into calories. Artificial sweeteners pass through your system without having as much of an effect on blood sugar levels or weight gain. Natural sweeteners such as stevia are also complex to break down, making them a low-calorie alternative to table sugar.
Sweeteners such as aspartame can also be as much as 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar. You need much less to achieve the same result in recipes, allowing you to cut back on overall sugar consumption. Sweeteners are easier than sugar to use in moderation, helping to reduce the risk of unwanted health effects.
Are Sweeteners Unhealthy?
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and the American Heart Association (AHA), sweeteners are safe to use and may offer an effective way to combat issues such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, and heart disease. Despite claims dating back to the 1970s, the truth about sweeteners is that there’s no conclusive evidence that they increase cancer risk.
Artificial sweeteners are also a healthier alternative to sugar when it comes to dental health. Cavities occur when bacteria in your mouth digest and ferment sugar to produce acid, slowly wearing away tooth enamel. However, these bacteria can’t process artificial sweeteners and thus produce no tooth-decaying byproducts.
There is some evidence, however, that sweeteners may negatively impact dietary health. Overstimulating sugar receptors can lead to higher levels of tolerance, which can cause people to seek out sweeter foods while developing a distaste for healthy, savory flavors.
Because sweeteners lack the calories typically found in sugary foods, they may work to disrupt leptin pathways that signal a full stomach. This can lead to an increased appetite, an unhealthy diet plan, and eventual weight gain. Sweeteners such as sucralose may even decrease insulin sensitivity and eventually lead to insulin resistance.
Sweeteners can also disrupt gut microflora. When the balance of bacteria in the digestive tract gets thrown off balance, it can severely impact things ranging from blood sugar control to weight gain. Fortunately, changes in gut bacteria are most often temporary and reversible.
Sweeteners may also be just as addictive as certain drugs, if not more so. In one study, rats given a choice between artificially sweet saccharine and cocaine consistently chose the sweet reward. People could just as quickly get hooked on sweeteners and increase their sugar intake over time as they develop a tolerance to it.
People with certain health conditions may want to be careful about which sweetener they choose to use in place of sugar. Individuals with the metabolic disease phenylketonuria (PKU) can’t process phenylalanine, an amino acid found in aspartame. Too much aspartame in their diet could lead to a buildup of phenylalanine that may damage the nervous system.
Anyone allergic to synthetic drugs classed as sulfonamides should avoid saccharin. The compound is a type of sulfonamide, and it may cause mild to severe reactions in sensitive individuals. Symptoms of a sulfonamide reaction may include rashes and irritation, diarrhea, and difficulty breathing.
While they might have gained a somewhat bad reputation in the past few decades, the truth about sweeteners is that they’re perfectly safe in moderation. In fact, sweeteners are often healthier than sugar for people looking to cut back on calories. As with any ingredient, though, sweeteners don’t come without their drawbacks.
The safest way to get your sugar fix is by eating naturally sweet foods such as fruits, berries, and even vegetables like carrots and squash. Thanks to their high fiber content, sugar from fruits gets absorbed much more slowly and effectively than processed sweeteners. What’s more, fruits and veggies are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, making them a healthy addition to any low-sugar diet.