Sweeteners: Good or bad?

Are artificial sweeteners better than sugar?
Ian Locke
Ian Locke
Nov 21, 2020

If you have a sweet tooth and can’t ditch sugar without switching to artificial sweeteners, be prepared to be disappointed by this blog. If you’re concerned about your weight, mental health or general well-being, we’re going to explain why sweeteners aren’t the answer.

What are artificial sweeteners?

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 still heavily processed.

Sweeteners are used to improve the flavour of food after the tasty fat and sugar have been removed. They’re found in many processed and low-calorie foods, low-calorie drinks, 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 body releases juices to help our stomach digest the sugar it thinks is on its way. When the expected sugar doesn’t arrive, we continue to feel hungry and are likely to eat more.

In fact, studies show that people who drink low-calorie drinks rather than full-sugar equivalents eat more calories during the day. And those calories matter – it’s been shown that drinking water, tea or coffee (without artificial sweeteners) reduced people’s weight, whereas those who drank sweetened drinks put on weight.

As Thrive is all about optimising health and not just looking great, we want to share that two studies of health care workers concluded that men who drank a can of diet drink each day had a much higher risk of developing cancer than those who didn’t (there was no such association for women).

Types of sweeteners

Aspartame (E951)

200 times sweeter than sugar, Aspartame is the cheapest and most popular sweetener.  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 use has been linked to some cancers, neurological issues (it can over-excite and kill off brain cells, causing depression, reduced serotonin, headaches and migraines), high blood pressure and damaged vision.

Saccharin (E954)

Sweetex, Hermesetas and Tesco Value Sweetener use Saccharin and it’s 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. Tasty.

Sucralose (E955)

Essentially chlorinated table sugar, but 600 times sweeter. 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).

Acesulfame potassium (E950)

This wins the prize for the most scientific name and matches aspartame for sweetness, but has a bitter aftertaste. It is often mixed with aspartame to hide 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.

Stevia can improve our body’s 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 ordinarily feature. A little bit 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, reduced-calorie or reduced-fat foods, and heavily processed foods. 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 to appease your hunger. Save your money, spend two weeks retraining your taste buds away from sweet things and you’ll never look back.

If you do need some added sweetness in your life, go for a small amount of unrefined sugar, but compensate by reducing the amount of other carbohydrates you’re eating.

What else can you do?

Giving up something you enjoy or don’t want to live without is a big ask for your motivation. That is unless there is a benefit you want more than what you’re giving up.

Perhaps you want to shed a few pounds?  Giving up sugar and sweeteners can help.  Maybe you want to stabilise your energy levels throughout the day?  Going sugar-free will avoid those spikes (and subsequent falls) in energy. It could be that you’re focused on your long-term health and longevity, in which case you can score points against cancer, dementia and obesity-related conditions.

And the best thing? You can start now. This very moment. You don’t even need to move from your screen.

Good. That’s the first five seconds of being someone who doesn’t eat sweeteners done. Remind yourself of that.

If we keep telling ourselves and others that we don’t use sweeteners anymore, we remind ourselves that we used to. If we just say we “don’t use sweeteners”, it becomes part of our mindset. It helps with giving up smoking, alcohol or anything else we were dependent on.

Are you ready to thrive?

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