In: Nutrition

Sweeteners: Good or bad?

What are artificial sweeteners?

Sugar is more damaging to our health than fat, but are artificial sweeteners any better?

If you have an insatiable sweet tooth and can’t ditch sugar without replacing it with artificial sweeteners, be prepared to be disappointed by this blog.  In it, I explain why I think it’s best to avoid them if you’re concerned about your weight, mental health or general well-being.

Image of sweetener falling on to a spoon

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium and saccharin are sweet tasting compounds made from very specific chemical reactions.  Stevia is a less artificial sweetener, but it’s hardly natural either.

As well as reducing calories from sugar, sweeteners are used to improve the flavour of food after fat has been removed.  They are regularly found in processed food, low calorie food & drink, breakfast cereals, chewing gum, confectionery and even toothpaste.

Impact on our bodies

Sweeteners trick our bodies into thinking we’ve eaten sugar.  As we chew, our pancreas starts releasing digestive enzymes which warns our stomach that sugar is on its way.  When the expected sugar doesn’t arrive, we can continue to feel hungry and are likely to eat more.

In fact, studies have shown that people who drink diet drinks compared to full sugar equivalents eat more calories during the day.  Other studies have shown that those who drink water, tea or coffee (without artificial sweeteners) reduced their weight over time, whereas those who put on the most weight were drinking sweetened drinks.

And as Thrive is about health and not just looking great, you should know that two studies of health care workers concluded that men who drank 12oz of diet drinks a day had a much higher risk of developing cancer than those that didn’t (there was no such association for women).

Types of sweeteners

Aspartame (E951)

The cheapest and most popular sweetener, Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than table sugar.  Diet Coke and other soft drinks use it and it is the basis of NutraSweet, Silver Spoon Sweetener, Canderel, Tesco Sweetener, Sweet & Low and Silver Spoon Half Spoon.

Its consumption has been linked to some cancers, neurological side effects (one of its ingredients has been shown to over-excite and kill off brain cells, causing depression, reduced serotonin, headaches and migraines), high blood pressure and damaged vision.

Sucralose (E955)

Essentially chlorinated sugar and 600 times sweeter than sucrose.  Used in Splenda, Asda Low Cal Sweetener and Nevella, its chemical structure survives heat so is useful in cooking.

Our bodies hardly touch sucralose during digestion and metabolism, meaning we excrete most of it. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, other than the environment can’t deal with it either (water treatment plants in Sweden have been shown to accumulate sucralose after all normal processing has finished).

Saccharin (E954)

Sweetex, Hermesetas and Tesco Value Sweetener use Saccharin and it is 300 times sweeter than table sugar.  It has a bitter aftertaste, so is usually used in conjunction with other sweeteners or chemical flavour enhancers.

It lasts a relatively long time in food, so can often be found mixed with other sweeteners to extend the shelf life of food which would otherwise not be edible.

Acesulfame potassium (E950)

This wins the prize for the most scientific name.  It matches aspartame for sweetness and has a bitter aftertaste.  It is often mixed with aspartame (as it is in Diet Coke and Silver Spoon Sweetener) to offset its flavour.

It is used in Silver Spoon Sweetener, Canderel, Sweet & Low and Silver Spoon Half Spoon.  More research has been recommended, but there is some concern that it might impact prenatal development.

Stevia

Stevia deserves a little more attention.  Derived from the leaf of a member of the sunflower family in South America, stevia has been used for hundreds of years as a sweetener.  It has a glycaemic index of 0 (meaning it doesn’t impact blood sugar levels) and zero calories.  It’s 250 times sweeter than table sugar, though has a slightly unusual taste.

It can improve glucose tolerance (good for diabetics), lower inflammation (good for those looking to lose fat) and lower blood pressure (good for most of us).  Too much can be a bad thing though as your body still needs to detox stevia from your body.

The long and short of it

Thrive’s philosophy is all about finding effective ways to improve people’s health and fitness for the long term and sweeteners don’t feature.  A little bit of artificial sweetener every now and then is unlikely to be a big issue, but the problem is knowing how much is being consumed.

To minimise your exposure to sweeteners, stay away from sweetened drinks and eat real food.  The easiest way to do this is to only eat meals prepared with single ingredient foods.  I grew up in the 70s and 80s with meat and two veg for dinner and that’s a pretty good place to start.

And don’t be fooled into using sweeteners for fat loss as you could end up eating more calories.  Save your money and spend two weeks retraining your taste buds and you’ll never look back.

If you do need some sweetness in your life, go for a small amount of unrefined sugar, but compensate by reducing the amount of other carbohydrates you’re eating.  Leave the non-starchy vegetables alone though – it’s difficult to eat too many of those.