The Bitter Truth About Sugar And Alternative Sweeteners

It's been drilled into our heads that sugar is pure evil, but are any of the no-calorie alternatives really any better? And if they're not, what the heck are we supposed to eat?!

December 23, 2015
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If there were ever a mascot for the entire holiday season, it would almost definitely be a giant sugar cube. We decorate gingerbread houses and dole out trays of cookies; there are Advent calendars and stockings both stuffed to the brim; and every other night is booked with yet another holiday party. It’s not Christmas that’s all around us, as Bill Nighy croons in Love Actually, but rather sugar that surrounds us all this season.

What a shame that sugar is also the root of all evil, according to the majority of recent health headlines.

No one (myself included) wants to hear that desserts are unhealthy, though. So the market has been flooded with sugar alternatives, sweeteners that claim to be just as tantalizing but without the calories or health concerns. Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re everywhere, and new ones seem to hit the market every year.

But are they safe?

FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND

When I refer to non-sugar sweeteners or sugar alternatives, I generally mean “nonnutritive” sweeteners, or ones that don’t contribute significant calories. They could be “artificial” (Splenda/sucralose, Equal/aspartame, Sweet’N Low/saccharin, Sweet One/acesulfame-K) or “natural” (stevia, monk fruit extract). We’re going to talk about all of them in this article, because although they are indeed quite different from one another, they all fit under the same umbrella.

THE PROS

Nonnutritive sweeteners, whether natural or artificial, do not affect blood sugar levels appreciably, which is important for individuals with diabetes. Stevia, in particular, may lead to a more favorable insulin response. After conducting analyses of currently available research, both The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and The American Heart Association support their use as part of an overall healthy diet. Sucralose, in particular, has been the subject of much research, something that Splenda as a company reminds us in its FAQ section.

A quick note on saccharin (Sweet’N Low) specifically: Research shows that normal intake is below the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) level determined by international scientific expert committees of the United Nations. Saccharin did spark controversy in the 1970s for animal studies linking it to cancer, but we now know this link is not a concern for humans.

The short version of this side of the story? They’re safe in that they are not associated with cancer (important!), and they also don’t seem to have any negative impact on the environment (also important). As far as their effectiveness, well, that’s another story…

THE CONS

There is much more research that still needs to be done! Some of the research shows short-term weight loss associated with these sweeteners, but nothing conclusive in the long term (so the weight is often regained).

Perhaps even more troubling is the recent research on rats (not humans, admittedly) that made headlines and implicated nonnutritive sweeteners in glucose intolerance (which can develop into full-blown diabetes) and altered gut bacteria. With lackluster gut bacterial populations being linked to everything from obesity to mood, that’s kind of a big deal and warrants further investigation.

Oh, and a bunch of the organizations that cite these sweeteners’ safety happen to be quietly supported by some of the biggest names in the food industry (think Coca-Cola, Dannon, Monsanto, PepsiCo, and Nestle, to name a few). There’s nothing inherently wrong with companies funding research on their own products (who else is going to do it?), but the whole thing is still pretty sneaky and certainly raises questions of bias.

A quick note on stevia and monk fruit extract: These “newbies” on the market are not yet considered Generally Recognized as Safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because of lack of research to date. That’s not to say they’re dangerous; they’re just not studied nearly as extensively as other sweeteners.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

I do not recommend nonnutritive sweeteners to my clients, artificial or natural, so I guess that means I’m calling this a flop. In general, we’re better off focusing on eating food instead of products, and these sweeteners are definitely products. I don’t like being a company’s guinea pig, and without more research, that’s really what’s going on. Still, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used safely and effectively. Ultimately, that’s not really the point.

The solution to our sugar habit is not to find a loophole in the system; it’s to take that scary, uncomfortable road toward shifting our diet patterns overall. Swapping regular ice cream with sugar-free ice cream might make you thinner but it won’t make you healthier, and that’s the real issue.

We have come to rely on that sweet flavor so much. It’s time we start challenging those lazy taste buds of ours. There’s a big, complex world of flavors outside of sugar and it’s waiting for us. Go on, take a bite!

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