We all know too much sugar is bad for us. But what about the increasingly popular alternative - sweeteners? Are they a healthier substitute?
Some sweeteners can provide sweetness without the calories of sugar (Taylor, 2019). They can be divided into three categories: artificial sweeteners, nutritive sweeteners and natural intense sweeteners (NSW Ministry of Health, 2015).
1. Artificial sweeteners
In Australia and New Zealand, the most common artificial sweeteners include aspartame (e.g. Equal®), saccharin (Sweetex®) and sucralose (Splenda®). These can be found in many items such as soft drinks, ice-cream, yoghurt, lollies, cakes and chewing gum. They're also sold as liquids, granule sachets or small tablets which can be added into your own food and drinks.
2. Nutritive sweeteners
Nutritive sweeteners, also known as sugar alcohols are modified forms of carbohydrates. For instance, fructose, xylitol, sorbitol, and maltodextrin. These have equal or fewer calories than sugar.
3. Natural intense sweeteners
The term “natural” can be interpreted in a number of ways. Natural intense sweeteners differ from natural sweeteners such as honey, which are not processed. Instead, they may be extracted from a natural source and then heavily processed. Stevia, for instance, is sourced from the leaves of the stevia plant. Then it is processed extensively to ultimately form a substance that is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Pros of Sweeteners
- Little to no calories. Artificial and natural intense sweeteners have significantly fewer calories than sugar.
- Does not raise blood sugar. As sweeteners do not affect blood sugar levels, they may be helpful for diabetics to minimising drastic changes in blood glucose.
- Does not damage teeth directly. Typically, sugars react with the bacteria in your mouth to produce acid, which causes tooth decay. Sweeteners do not interact in this way. However, artificial sweeteners are often added to diet soft drinks which are indeed acidic, and will damage to your teeth. (Mandel & Grotz, 2002)
Cons of Sweeteners
- May increase appetite
- Most foods that contain artificial sweeteners still have calories
- Might be addictive
Pros of Sugar
- Can be naturally balanced. Natural sugar-containing foods, like whole fruit, are high in fibre and nutrients
Cons of Sugar
- Added sugars (highly refined sugar) increases blood glucose, insulin, and triglycerides, which increases the risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.
- Sugar is empty calories, as it has no additional nutritional value.
Sweeteners can be a useful alternative to sugar for diabetics, and aid weight loss by reducing caloric intake. Sugar substitutes may be helpful in transitioning away from high-sugar items, like soft drinks, to water via a diet version of the drink.
However, moderation is key. You might think sweeteners, which are significantly sweeter than sugar, would help you eat a smaller amount. Yet, sweeteners flood your taste buds with sweetness and dull with them to the taste. So you come to crave food that is even sweeter (Warren, 2019). Moreover, studies suggest that sucralose, for example, doesn’t satisfy a craving for sweets (The Nutrition Source, 2019).
In addition, many processed foods that contain sweeteners are low in nutrients - think energy drinks, desserts, candy, and ice cream. It would be much healthier to add a little sweetener a nutrient-dense food such as oats, if it helps with switching from a doughnut to oats.
Sweeteners aren’t a magic bullet, but may help you make the move to more nutrition-dense foods. Consume sparingly to avoid becoming dulled to the taste and increasing your appetite.
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Mandel, I. D., & Grotz, V. L. (2002). Dental considerations in sucralose. use. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11887514
Mayo Clinic Staff (2018). Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes. Mayo Clinic. Sourced from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936
NSW Ministry of Health (2015). Sweeteners (sugar alternatives). NSW Government. Sourced from: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/heal/factsheets/sweeteners.pdf
Taylor, V. (2019). Are artificial sweeteners better than sugar? British Heart Foundation. Sourced from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/ask-the-expert/artificial-sweeteners
The Nutrition Source (2019). Low-calorie Sweeteners. Harvard School of Public Health. Sourced from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/artificial-sweeteners/#ref56
Warren, R. M. (2019). The Truth About Sugar vs. Artificial Sweeteners. Consumer Reports. Sourced from: https://www.consumerreports.org/sugar-sweeteners/the-truth-about-sugar-vs-artificial-sweeteners/