Everything you need to know about artificial sweeteners

Everything you need to know about artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners have become a staple since the discovery of saccharin in the 1800s and the rise of aspartame in the 1980s. There was a time when the general public believed artificial sweeteners were better than real sugar, hence the popularity of diet sodas. But more research has revealed that artificial sweeteners might not be the best choice for your health — and, unfortunately, they are also a main ingredient in a lot of snacks available today. So the best thing you can do is avoid artificial sweeteners when you can, but to do that you’ll need to know a few key facts.

An increasingly popular ingredient

Initially, sweeteners were produced for people who couldn’t eat sugar, or who wanted to cut down on calories from sugary foods. Before the advent of large-scale food processing, their use was minimal. Today, food manufacturers employ the use of artificial sweeteners in over 6,000 food products, including diet sodas, chewing gum, jams, jellies, juice, cereals, instant oatmeal, toaster strudels, yogurts, food supplements, vitamins, and even some pharmaceuticals.

Two types of artificial sweeteners are available in the marketplace today — sugar alcohols and non-caloric sweeteners. Sugar alcohols contain about the same number of calories as sugar, so are not helpful to those trying to lose weight. Examples of sugar alcohols are sorbitol and mannitol. You may have seen these names on chewing gum and other products. They are a boon to the chewing gum industry because they do not cause cavities, but they do deliver calories.

Woman eating chewing gum

Non-caloric or artificial sweeteners do not add more calories to the diet. Artificial sweeteners have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA made this decision after looking at tests showing that “normal use” of artificial sweeteners would not cause health problems. More recent scientific studies share concerns that there may be health risks for individuals, including children, who consume more than the level the FDA defines as “normal use”.

Although early studies do not show how safe artificial sweeteners would be when consumed over a lifetime, food manufacturers are continuing to rely on the addition of sweeteners in more products each year. The market for artificial sugar substitutes is forecast to grow from $1.2 billion in 2012 to $1.7 billion in 2017.

Here’s the list of the six categories of artificial sweeteners, their brand names, and their sweetness as compared to sugar.

Artificial sweetener Brand names  Sweetness compared to sugar 
Aspartame Equal, NutraSweet, others 180 times sweeter
Acesulfame-K Sunett, Sweet One 200 times sweeter
Saccharin Sweet’N Low, Necta Sweet, others 300 times sweeter
Sucralose Splenda 600 times sweeter
Neotame No brand names 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter
Advantame No brand names 20,000 times sweeter

You may have noticed names of popular brands sold and used in small packets for personal use. The other issue you may have noticed is their ability to sweeten food as compared to sugar. Now, here’s where the “rub” comes in. Let’s assume that all artificial sweeteners are completely safe in any amount for human consumption in all 6,000-plus foods available in the marketplace today. Then let’s take a look at the sweetening effect of a substance 180 times sweeter and up to 7,000 times sweeter than sugar.

Under normal circumstances, and in small amounts, our body has the ability to process natural sugars that we consume. This is called glucose control, keeping our blood sugar at healthy levels. Recent compelling research, however, tells us that consumption of artificial sweeteners disrupts the body’s ability to manage glucose, wreaking havoc on blood sugar levels and even leading to Type 2 diabetes. How could this be possible?

The unforeseen side-effects of sweeteners

Recent research reveals that high-intensity sweeteners can alter our gut bacteria, necessary for a myriad of metabolic processes that our body needs to maintain health, one of the more important functions of gut bacteria (also called gut biome or microbiota). Presently, scientists cannot explain how the sweeteners affect gut bacteria, but this effect has been observed in more than a few studies.

Woman eating a bar of chocolate

Could no-calorie sweeteners actually be the cause of weight gain? Recently there has been much interest in this topic. Researchers say there is a psychological factor that tricks us into thinking the slab of chocolate is fine to eat because we aren’t taking in sugar calories in other foods we are eating or drinking. Concern is also rising that physiology can also be altered due to the body’s response to high-intensity sweeteners, one example being the altering of gut bacteria as mentioned above.

It may be too soon to conclude the affect all artificial sweeteners on all metabolic disorders, but scientists do agree about one of them – saccharin, which has a significant effect on the gut.

Have you had concerns about the use of artificial sweeteners? Have you cut back or eliminated them? How did you do it?

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