Our appetite for low and zero sugar products is increasing – and with it our use of sugar replacements. Cutting down on sugar seems a no-brainer, and rightly so, but is it possible that sweeteners are just as bad for us? Not all sugar replacements are created equal - some are harmful are some are healthful. Read on to discover the bitter truth behind artificial sweeteners and why sugar isn't the only answer for a sweeter life!
Sugar vs. Sweeteners
A question I've been asked a lot over the years is "which is better for me, sugar or sweeteners?" It seems that people are trying to decide which is the lesser of two evils. If sugar is bad for us and sweeteners are too then where do we go from here? One minute we need to cut down on sugar and the next thing you know sweeteners are to be avoided, what's the answer?
Choosing the healthiest option shouldn't be about which is less bad for us, it should be a question of which is better for us! When replacing sugar its essential to recognise that not all sweeteners are the same. Some are bad for us and some are actually health promoting. Like every food product, there'll always be a cheaper, poorer quality option that is worse for us. But in the battle of sugar versus sweeteners - natural, health-promoting sweeteners always win.
You may have seen some bitter press about sweeteners in the news recently. With headlines such as "sweeteners have few health benefits" and "artificially sweetened drinks pose a risk to brain health” it’s no wonder so many of us are wary of their use. But what’s missing from the strap-line is any sort of clue towards which sweeteners are in question.
Pure, natural and healthful sugar replacements are lost in the shadows of their artificial and harmful counterparts. We need to distinguish between types of sweeteners before we can determine their effect on health.
Tip: If you’re bamboozled by constant claims and conspiracies in the news, check out Behind the Headlines (https://www.nhs.uk/news/) – an NHS website that markets itself as a guide to science that makes the news. They outline the studies in question and put it in black and white whether their findings are to be followed or forgotten!
Not all Sweeteners are Created Equal
When it comes to nutrition, food is like a Russian doll. It is made of many nutrients and within those nutrients is another group of nutrients and so on. Same goes for sweeteners, it’s impossible to know if they’re good or bad for you unless you can distinguish which kind of sweetener it is. Put simply, artificial sweeteners are worse for us, and natural sweeteners are better for us. You’ve heard of good fats and bad fats, good carbs and bad carbs, time to learn more about the angels and demons of the sweetener world.
These are synthetic chemicals that are added to food and drinks to make them taste sweet. They're a lot sweeter than normal sugar and have only a minute fraction of the calories, so many people use them to eat less sugar and lose weight. In general they're recognised as safe for consumption, but that doesn't make them good for you - or appetising!
You'll recognise some of the more widely known artificial sweeteners - aspartame, saccharin and sucralose. These are commonly sold as various brand names and are anywhere from 200-600 times sweeter than sugar itself.
Downfalls of artificial sweeteners:
- Overstimulate sugar receptors and encourage sugar craving and dependence (because they are hyper-intense and so much sweeter than sugar itself)
- Disrupt the balance of gut bacteria in some people, which could increase the risk of disease
- Linked with causing headaches and increasing the risk of depression and seizures
- Confuse the brain into favouring artificially sweetened foods over naturally sweet foods, which are far more nutritious
Overall, the problem with artificial sweeteners is that they're just too sweet. This unnatural sweetness confuses our brain and causes all sorts of havoc with taste perception, cravings and even physical responses. When you hear about sweeteners in the news, it's probably these they're talking about.
Replacing sugar with natural sweeteners is a great way to avoid the adverse effects of sugar and artificial sweeteners, whilst still enjoying that sweet taste we all crave.
Popular natural sweeteners include erythritol and xylitol. These are sugar alcohols found naturally in fruits and vegetables. They're 100% natural ingredients and vary in sweetness from around half to two-thirds compared with the sweetness of normal sugar.
Benefits of Natural Sweeteners:
- Familiar intensity of sweetness and so satisfy our cravings for normal sugar without over stimulating our sugar receptors
- Don't spike blood sugars or effect insulin levels, so are great for controlling Type 2 Diabetes and preventing its onset
- Similar sweetness to sugar but very low calorie, so great for supporting weight loss efforts
- Zero carbohydrate content - suitable for low GI and ketogenic diets and for those with diabetes
- Promote dental health by preventing plaque build-up and dental caries
Natural sweeteners provide all of the taste of sugar with very few calories and none of the nasties found in artificial sweeteners. They're a healthy addition to any diet, whether you're diabetic, trying to shed a few pounds or else just have a sweet tooth!
Embrace the Sweet Life with Natural Sugar Replacements
It’s understandable why some people would revert back to sugar after hearing such horror stories about artificial sweeteners, but with natural and health-promoting sugar alternatives on the rise you can get your sweet fix without sacrificing your wellbeing.
Swapping sugar-sweetened food and beverages for sugar-free alternatives is beneficial from a weight management, dental and diabetes perspective. Avoiding harmful artificial sweeteners and replacing sugar with natural sweeteners is a recipe for success when it comes to both health and enjoyment! Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too?!
- Control Blood Sugar Levels
- Reduce Overall Calorie Intake
- Prevent Tooth Decay
- Support Maintenance of a Healthy Weight
- Enhance the Taste of Healthier Foods
Author: Stephanie Masterman @NutriNoggin
- Sylvetsky, A. and Rother, K. (2016). Trends in the consumption of low-calorie sweeteners. Physiology & Behavior, 164, pp.446-450.
- Kroger, M., Meister, K. and Kava, R. (2006). Low-calorie Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes: A Review of the Safety Issues. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 5(2), pp.35-47.
- Gregersen, S., Jeppesen, P., Holst, J. and Hermansen, K. (2004). Antihyperglycemic effects of stevioside in type 2 diabetic subjects. Metabolism, 53(1), pp.73-76.
- Gold, J. (2014). Erythritol May Reduce Dental Caries in High-Risk School Children. Journal of Evidence Based Dental Practice, 14(4), pp.185-187.
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