Sugar Substitutes: A Sweet Deal?
Seated at a restaurant or standing at the coffee bar, do you reach for the blue, yellow, pink or green packet? Well, that depends. Do you prefer aspartame, neotame, saccharin or sucralose with your coffee? If you have no idea what any of these ingredients are, perhaps the names of these sweeteners will sound more familiar: Equal, NutraSweet, Sweet’N Low and Splenda. When did these artificial sweeteners become so popular? In addition to these colorful packets conveniently offered at nearly every restaurant and cafe, our current food supply provides us with an abundant array of foods in “sugar-free” forms. But are these sugar-free options really healthier for us?
Tastes like sugar, looks like sugar but is it sugar?
By themselves, artificial sweeteners contain the sweetness of regular table sugar but without the calories. As you will see in the table below, artificial sweeteners are much more sweeter than sugar.
With the rise in obesity and diabetes, it’s no surprise that sugar has gained a bad reputation. Whether it is due to personal health reasons like managing diabetes or health conscious individuals who are looking to moderate their intake, many people try to avoid sugar at all costs. But what are the health costs of subbing in artificial sweeteners for the real deal? Although artificial sweeteners mimic the sweetness of sugar, no matter how it may taste or look, artificial sweeteners are chemicals.
Currently, there is a very large market for sugar substitutes, both man-made and natural. For now, it may interest you a few differences about these popular sugar substitute brands:
||Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
220x sweeter than sugar
It loses its sweetness when exposed to heat.
Made with an amino acid, phenylalanine – those who have phenylketonuria should steer clear from this!
600x sweeter than sugar
Does not break down when cooked or baked, which is why it is in many foods and drinks.
||Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin)
200-700x sweeter than sugar
200-300x sweeter than sugar
Derived from the plant Stevia rebaudiana
Although it’s only gained recent popularity in the U.S., the Japanese have been using it for decades.
In terms of safety, the FDA reviews artificial sweeteners and sets a limit on the amount people should consume which is based on an individual’s weight. Although they are generally deemed safe to consume, it is possible to get by without them. To learn more about different types of sweeteners, their composition and research studies that tested their safety, click here.
Artificial Sweeteners: The Catch 22
When it comes to artificial sweeteners, be mindful that they are not limited to the colorful packets you find in restaurants and cafés. Today, these sweeteners are found everywhere. Anything labeled “sugar-free,” or “diet” may be artificially sweetened. At zero to little calories, it’s no wonder why many artificial sweeteners are appealing to consumers. But wait—are these artificial sweeteners really zero calories? While this may be the case for sweeteners packaged in their individual packets, it is not always the case when present in foods and beverages. Sugar-free food doesn’t mean calorie-free food! With artificial sweeteners, we may trick ourselves into thinking we consumed less—when we actually end up consuming more.
Whether it is artificial or natural, consuming anything sweet generally encourages “sugar craving and sugar dependence (2).” Moreover, studies show that flavor preference for sweets can be trained by repeated exposure to sweets (3).This means that the more sweets we expose our palates to, the more our taste buds will ask for them.
The body’s reaction to artificial sweeteners raises other questions, such as whether or not substitutes are fueling our nation’s obesity epidemic. Research suggests a correlation between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and long-term weight gain (1). Although sugar-free foods can help with weight loss or aid in calorie control, artificial sweeteners can often distort our perception of calories. Consuming foods made with artificial sweeteners may satisfy our current cravings while low in calories, but later our bodies may be searching for those calories, leading to additional cravings.
On the other hand, some people do not associate artificially sweetened foods and beverages with calories. For example, even though a sugar-free cookie is likely to contain fewer calories than a regular cookie (which in theory can help reduce one’s calorie intake) if an individual decides to eat an entire box of sugar-free cookies, then the individual will have probably consumed more calories than what would have been in one regular cookie made with real sugar.
Live a Sweet Life with Less Added Sugar
This week, challenge yourself! Our taste buds are ever changing and it is possible to retrain them. When it comes to your morning cup of Joe, try adding 1 less packet. If you typically add only 1 packet, try adding only half. If you typically drink soda, try switching to flavored carbonated water, like Perrier. Or, if you are craving for something sweet, opt for a sliced fruits on whole wheat breads with some peanut butter or perhaps a homemade smoothie. By adding fruit, not only do you get the natural sweetness, but is also full of flavor, antioxidants, vitamins and fiber. Try to cut down on sweets in general. Now this does not mean you should deprive yourself—in moderation, it is perfectly okay to enjoy sweets. If you want your cake, eat it. It is better to consume less of the real thing rather than more of the artificial one. Savor the taste and enjoy it in moderation.
Adopt small changes to turn make it part of a healthier lifestyle. When possible, it is best to avoid any added sweeteners (4). Although artificial sweeteners are considered safe and may help people manage Diabetes, they are most commonly found in processed and packaged foods. In terms of nutrition and living a healthy and happy lifestyle, they are not as nutrient-dense as whole, unprocessed foods. Since artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than table sugar, if used, should be used in very small quantities–or if you must, to stick with Stevia. Just remember, it is possible to live a sweet life, with less added sugar.
- Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, et al. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2008;16:1894–900. [PubMed]
- Liem DG, De Graaf C. Sweet and sour preferences in young children and adults: role of repeated exposure. Physiology and Behavior. 2004;83(3):421–429. [PubMed]
- Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: neuroscience 2010. Yale J Biol Med. 2010;83:101–108. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
- A/ADA Scientific Statement: Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Current Use and Health Perspectives: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association