We got a lot of feedback on the sugar post we ran a while back, many people asking if artificial sweeteners are okay to use instead.
In a word, not really. (Okay, that was two.) But it depends on what kind of sugar substitutes we’re talking about.
On the one hand, you’ve got your synthetic sweeteners, resembling nothing close to nature:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
- Saccharin (Twin, Sweet’N Low)
Sucralose (Splenda) is derived from sugar but is likewise considered an artificial sweetener. Our bodies cannot digest it properly.
Then there are sugar alcohols, typically derived from plant sources. You can identify them on food labels by the “ol” endings on their names – sorbitol, manitol, lactitol, xylitol and so on. (Sugars, on the other hand, commonly end with “ose,” as in glucose, sucrose and fructose.)
Over recent years, sugar alcohols have grown in popularity, as has another sugar substitute: stevia. Derived from a sweet herb, it is calorie-free and appears to have little significant effect on blood sugar levels. Stevia also tastes most like conventional sugar and has proven safe. If you do opt for sugar substitutes, this one’s among the best. Just be aware that some brands contain chemical additives, so be sure to check the label to make sure you get a pure product.
As for the others, let’s take a look at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – and start with “the Ugly” just to get it out of the way.
Artificial Sweeteners: The Ugly
Synthetic sweeteners don’t have a lot to recommend them. Their milder “side effects” increased urination and weight gain. Worse, they’ve been linked to serious ailments such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Most recently, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed a link between aspartame and “increased risk of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and multiple myeloma in men.” Dr. Mercola’s commentary on this study is definitely worth a look. As he notes, “This is the first large-scale observational human study to report an association between aspartame consumption and blood cancers.” Earlier studies have tended to be short and flawed.
Interestingly, just as we were preparing this post, Dr. Mercola published another article on aspartame that you should be sure to check out, as well.
Yet another concern with synthetic sweeteners is that, like sugar, they may trigger the brain centers associated with addiction. We know people who just can’t get by without their diet soda, and we bet you do, too. It can be a hard habit to quit.
Artificial Sweeteners: The Bad
Sugar alcohols are generally much safer than the synthetics, though they still have their “side effects.” Most common are gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain and diarrhea. They also seem to aggravate pre-existing irritable bowel syndrome.
And although they are nearly calorie-free, they do have some effect on blood glucose levels.
Artificial Sweeteners: The Good?
There must be some good news, no? Well, there is the fact that artificial sweeteners don’t contribute to tooth decay as sugars do. And one sugar alcohol, xylitol, appears to actually prevent cavities. (In technical terms, we call this kind of substance anti-cariogenic, “caries” being the clinical term for “cavities.”) Thus, you increasingly see it used in toothpastes.
Of course, you could just use natural sugars such as honey, agave and maple syrup in moderation – and the less processed, the better. Or slice, dice or puree your favorite fruit for some naturally sweet flavor.
If you really want a challenge, you could follow Dr. Glaros’ lead. He only allows himself added sugars once a year, on his birthday. It sounds impossible to some, but he says he rarely misses it.
We hear the very same thing from patients who have kicked the sugar habit, too.
Image by sriram bala, via Flickr