Evidences has shown that artificial sweeteners contribute to weight gain, neurological effects and more. In order to help people reduce sugar consumption and lose weight, governments have approved artificial sweeteners in a misguided attempt to improve our health. And even though the evidence overwhelming indicates that fat is beneficial and essential to health, people still have a difficult time giving up their artificial sweeteners. This is a controversial topic among health professionals and consumers, and we know that I am no stranger to controversy. I feel very strongly about this issue and today I want to delve into it and explain some of the reasons why I don't consume artificial sweeteners, and why I don't believe they can be part of a healthy diet.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic chemicals designed to help us lose weight, reduce sugar consumption and manage blood sugar levels. They include:
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
Acesulfame K (Sunette, Sweet One)
Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low, Sweet Twin)
Sugar alcohols (Xylitol, Sorbitol, Mannitol, Isomalt)
The reason these sweeteners are intended for health purposes is because they are anywhere from 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, which means a very small amount is needed to add sweetness and they don't have calories or affect blood sugar levels.
However, their safety is questionable, despite the fact that they are approved by governments. Consuming a small amount may seem harmless, but what if you put it in your coffee, chew gum, brush your teeth with conventional toothpaste, have a diet soda, or eat cookies, candies or cereals? What is the collective load of all that?
Dietary Sources of Artificial Sweetener
Diet sodas and other low-calorie beverages
Condiments (ketchup, salad dressing, etc.)
Low-fat yogurt and other dairy
Breads and crackers
Cookies, cakes and other pastries
Cereal, granola and granola bars
Most products that touted as low-fat, low-calorie and sugar-free
In a nutshell, artificial sweeteners are used in packaged, processed and convenience products and they don't support our health.
How Do Artificial Sweeteners Impact Our Health?
Artificial sweeteners are not food. They are completely synthetic. Any 'food-like' substance or chemical that we put into our body that is not from nature increases the toxic load we carry. Any chemical that makes its home in the cells of our body and hangs out for a while has the potential to damage our DNA. When the DNA of our cells gets all kaleidoscoped and we continue to feed ourselves disease-building processed foods, we don't have what we need to reverse the damage. If our daily activities - which include the food we eat, way we handle stress our activity levels, our digestion and sleep - don't work in our favour to repair DNA, to improve the integrity of our cell membranes and the efficiency of our own elimination pathways (poop, skin, liver, kidneys, lungs) then we are working towards building disease.
Here are some more details about the ways artificial sweeteners impact our health.
WEIGHT GAIN + OBESITY
As I mentioned earlier, doctors and the public consider artificial sweeteners a calorie-free option and believe that including them in our foods will allow us to lose weight and prevent obesity. "Sweetness decoupled from caloric content offers partial, but not complete, activation of the food reward pathways. Activation of the hedonic component may contribute to increased appetite. Lack of complete satisfaction, likely because of the failure to activate the postingestive component, further fuels the food seeking behavior."
Essentially, what this means is when we have a sweet taste, our brains and bodies expect the calories to come. When they don't, we keep looking for them. With artificial sweeteners, we may momentarily satisfy a sweet craving without spiking our blood sugar, but as a result of this fake out, we may find another craving not too long later as our body was all geared up for a little calorie action from actual food. Artificial sweeteners, therefore, can cause the soda-pop sippers to either keep sipping or keep snacking, both of which are vicious cycles.
CANCER + TUMORS
There is a body of research, mostly conducted on animals, that indicate artificial sweeteners are linked to tumor growth and cancer development.
DIABETES + BLOOD SUGAR
Proponents of artificial sweeteners claim that they are perfect for diabetics because they don't impact blood sugar levels. But just like the weight loss claim, this is another 'benefit' that has proven false.
Artificial sweeteners are used in conventional and natural toothpastes to make them taste better without causing damage to our teeth. One could make the argument that xylitol, a sugar alcohol often found in toothpaste and chewing gum, isn't carcinogenic and can help prevent cavities (though xylitol can cause diarrhea in large amounts, and don't give it to your dog because it's toxic to them).
"By far the biggest use of sugar substitutes is made without concern for teeth or gums." Most artificial sweeteners are used in diet drinks and other low-fat, low-calorie treats, which may contain other ingredients that damage our teas citric or phosphoric acid.
Also, dental health isn't just about what comes directly in contact with our teeth or what Artificially-sweetened key lime pie yogurt just isn't a food that I would consider an important part of the dental health picture.
OTHER HEALTH RISKS
There is an extensive array of ways that artificial sweeteners may impact our health. Investigations show they can also:
Alternatives to Artificial Sweeteners
There are so many whole food options that we can use instead of artificial sweeteners.
If sugar isn't an issue for you, I'd recommend small amounts of the following:
Raw Honey: This superfood is packed with enzymes, amino acids and antioxidants. It's also great for your natural first aid kit.
Maple Syrup: A Canadian staple, maple syrup is rich in antioxidants and minerals like zinc, calcium and manganese.
Coconut Sugar/Syrup: These are tapped from the coconut palm tree and are low on the glycemic index.
Molasses: Molasses is a by-product of refining cane sugar, but unlike processed sugar, it is full of nutrients such as iron, magnesium and potassium.
Apple sauce: The pectin in apples helps with binding in gluten free baking, plus they are rich in antioxidants and fibre.
Dates/Dried Fruit: Make date paste by soaking dates in water and then blending them up. You can do this with a variety of dried fruits and change the consistency of the paste to be how you like it. Or you can eat a small amount of dried fruits as a snack.
Bananas: Mashed bananas are fantastic in baked goods and add extra fibre and potassium.
Sweet veggies, like carrots, beets and bell peppers: These will give you a sweet taste and provide you with antioxidants and compounds that support the liver.
Fresh fruit of all kinds: A fresh apple is very sweet! But when we eat a lot of sugar, we get de-sensitized to the natural sweetness of fruit. Fruit offers us sweetness, but also a range of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Aim for low-glycemic fruits if blood sugar is an issue.
If there is an issue with blood sugar in cases of Type I or Type II Diabetes, give the following a try in moderate amounts:
Stevia: This plant is actually much, much sweeter than sugar, so you only need to use a small amount of it. Aim to purchase green powdered stevia, as that is the plant that's been dried and ground. Clear stevia extract has gone through much more processing and is further removed from the whole food.
Xylitol: This sweetener is from the family of sugar alcohols, which are growing in popularity. Xylitol is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, but it's often extracted from birch wood. It can help with dental caries and balancing blood sugar. In large amounts, it can cause bloating and diarrhea - and it's toxic for your pooches.
Monk Fruit: This is a very low-glycemic option that is made from monk fruit. In the powdered form, it's 150 times sweeter than sugar so you certainly don't need to use a lot of it.
Erythritol: This is another sugar alcohol and like xylitol, erythritol can help prevent cavities and balance blood sugar. Don't consume too much, as it can also cause digestive upset. Most erythritol is derived from corn, so ensure you use a brand that is non GMO
And if you're not ready to give up sugar, please consider dropping artificial sweeteners from your life. You have nothing to lose and only better health to gain.
Neha Rai (Weight & Lifestyle Management Consultant)