In a culture where calories count more than what’s actually in the foods we’re putting in our body, I have decided to explore the main culprit of the zero-calorie obsession, artificial sweeteners. Losing weight can be a tasteless and dull experience, however, what seems to make life a little sweet(er) for those counting calories are artificial sweeteners; usually marketed as “sugar-free” or “diet. Diet drinks give a sweet fix, diet yoghurt and desserts a cool creamy treat from your so-called “diet” and a packet of artificial sweetener in your tea or coffee fixes the morning slump.
There are two types of artificial sweeteners, no calorie sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Whatever your opinion, there’s absolutely no avoiding them. They are found in thousands of products, from chewing gums, frozen dinners, yogurt, vitamins, baby food, medicine, diet drinks and toothpaste, yes toothpaste. Most toothpaste is sweet because they contain an artificial sweetener such as sodium saccharin, a petroleum-based sugar substitute. Saccharin’s 300 times sweeter than sugar, however, unlike sugar, saccharin doesn’t promote tooth decay. Some toothpaste contains xylitol, a natural type of sweetener (a sugar alcohol), it is known to reduce levels of decay-causing bacteria in saliva.
Being diagnosed with Type one diabetes in 2005 I had to learn quickly how much insulin to give myself for what I was eating. I was told by medical professionals that I could be flexible with my insulin routine and eat pretty much whatever I wanted, but that I should drink only sugar-free drinks (unless I was suffering a hypo). I therefore believed (as these were spoken words from a dietician after all) that sugar-free drinks were safe to consume. Why would I, a 17 yr old girl sitting in an NHS office believe any different? For years my fridge and cupboards were filled with sugar-free squash (cordials), low-fat sweetened yogurt and sugar-free fizzy drinks.
I can completely sympathise with any one who says that they are addicted to sugar-free fizzy drinks as for 7 years of my life I was a Diet Coke (usually the caffeine free one!) addict. I would wake up craving them and would have up to 4 or even 5 cans a day. I was the girl you would see walking in to lectures at 9am with a bottle of Diet Coke in her hand. Although I have never smoked, or taken drugs, I was well and truly hooked on the sweet brown liquid, it was like a comfort blanket to me. I am now well and truly against any kind of artificial sweetener, even chewing gum. Having shunned processed food, grains, gluten and most dairy for over 2 yrs ago now, I can guarantee that I would never go back. After uni and joining the workforce my cravings became even more apparent. At 11 am every day (without fail) I would crave my Diet Coke and would walk the 12 steps from my desk to the fridge to pluck one out, snap the ring pull open and drink in the sweetening liquid. It was ritualistic. If I didn’t have one, I would be suffering from an acute head ache by about 12pm and would start to feel lethargic and very grouchy. It felt like medicine to me, it wasn’t just a treat but a necessity. I drank it like water. By home time I would have the cans piled high in the bin and would be looking forward to having one if not two at home. I tried to reduce my intake of it before cutting it out completely and it was a momentous decision.
What are sweeteners?
Sweeteners are low-calorie or calorie-free mostly chemical (processed) substances that are used instead of sugar to sweeten foods, drinks and medicinal products. The UK sweetener sector is valued at £60 million, and more than a quarter of British households buy artificial sweeteners.
The most common and popular low-calorie sweeteners permitted for use in foods and beverages today are: aspartame, saccharin, stevia sweeteners, sucralose, xylitol and sorbitol. Stevia is a plant-based sweetener. It’s completely fructose free and 300 times (yes, you heard it right) sweeter than sugar. It can be used in powder form in baking, added to tea / coffee without the extra calories. When added to foods and beverages, these low-calorie sweeteners provide a taste that is similar to that of table sugar (sucrose), and are generally several hundred to several thousand times sweeter than sugar.
All sweeteners in the EU will have undergone a rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or its predecessor, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), before they can be used in food and drink.
In a society driven by how slim we are, how dewy and clear our skin is, we sometimes get carried away about the short-term fix, and don’t think about the long-term consequence, our health. So long as we look good on the outside, then surely that’s reflective of what’s going on inside?! Consequence is only something we realise once we’ve become ill. The question that we have to ask ourselves is, what’s more important calories or chemicals? If the first, then you may as well stop reading now, crack open a Diet Coke, munch on some sugar-free sweets and keep brushing your teeth with sweetened toothpaste. If not, read on.
Yes sweeteners are virtually calorie-less, however they are shrouded in controversy and have been ever since the first no-calorie sweetener, saccharin was discovered in 1878. There has been a lot of press to suggest that sweeteners can contribute to cancer, however Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute have said there is no definitive evidence that sweeteners are associated with cancer risk in humans. Regardless of the amount of bad press that sweeteners get, none of these claims have stuck, and demand for sweeteners continues unabated as consumers try to cut their sugar intake while still satisfying their sweet tooth*.
Sugar alcohols (which are funnily enough neither sugar or alcohol) like sorbitol, xylitol and isomalt are poorly dealt with by the body. They are slowly and incompletely absorbed in the body, causing little to no blood glucose reaction. You might see on sugar-free sweets, diabetic treats, mints and medicines (lozenges etc) the words “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect”. In some people sugar alcohols can cause bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea. This is because the sugar alcohol is not completely absorbed in the digestive system and this causes fermentation to occur in the intestines. Due to this build up, gas is produced and can cause gastrointestinal distress.
When you next see a packet of gum, toothpaste or medicine, check out the label and see if any of the following appear and note if you get any of the symptoms listed above:
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
Are artificial sweeteners healthy?
As reflected above, sweeteners are generally safe, but are they healthy? Food manufacturers (funnily enough) have claimed that sweeteners help prevent tooth decay, control blood sugar levels, aid weight loss and reduce our overall calorie intake.
However, there is certainly a lot more bad press about artificial sweeteners than there is good. The fact that sweeteners have been shrouded in so much controversy over the years suggests (to me) that they should be experienced with caution. They have no nutritional value and can be addictive, cause hunger issues and increase your craving for sugar..
4 good reasons to avoid artificial sweeteners at all costs:
1. Taste bud trickery
Artificial sweeteners, even natural ones like stevia, which comes from a herb, are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda, is 600 times sweeter than table sugar, and neotame, an emerging alternative to aspartame, is 7,000 – 13,000 times sweeter. Stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. By exposing our taste buds to such high intensity sweeteners can in fact make them less receptive to natural sources of sweetness.
2. They mess with your hormones / blood sugar
When you taste sweet foods, even if they have zero calories, your body still releases insulin as if you’d eaten sugar. This causes blood sugar spikes which increase cravings, cause you to feel hungrier and eat more. Although sweeteners have little to no calories, the pancreas responds to them as if they were natural sugars by producing insulin. Artificial sweeteners basically trick your body into thinking that it’s going to receive sugar (calories), but when the sugar doesn’t come, your body continues to signal that it needs more, which results in carb cravings
3. They make you gain weight
This is a slightly ambiguous one and there’s a lot of contrasting evidence as to whether sweeteners cause weight gain or loss. However, from someone who lost weight after giving up a diet packed with sweeteners and artificial ingredients and having done a lot of background research, I certainly adhere to believing that they do indeed cause weight gain.
Artificial sweeteners cause metabolic confusion. One of the reasons why artificial sweeteners do not help you lose weight relates to the fact that your body is not fooled by sweet taste without accompanying calories. Consuming sweeteners can cause an insulin spike which can in turn increase food cravings. Consequently, people end up eating more and gaining weight. Those who switch to artificial sweeteners are typically overweight / pre-diabetic, or prone to these conditions. Unfortunately, this is potentially the worst diet change you could implement if you’re overweight or diabetic. Research has repeatedly shown that artificially sweetened, no or low-calorie drinks and other “diet” foods tend to stimulate your appetite, increase cravings for carbs, stimulate fat storage and weight gain, and promote insulin resistance and diabetes.
4. They’re artificial
As we know, anything artificially processed should generally be avoided, especially white powder 100s-1000s of time sweeter than sugar!! Artificial sweeteners can contain potentially harmful chemicals, which can confuse your body, cause insulin resistance, weight issues, addiction, intestinal issues and are generally just best avoided.
Are there ANY safe and healthy alternatives to sugar?
In my view, artificial sweeteners are potentially more dangerous than sugar as we can’t 100% determine how are bodies are really reacting to them. My advice would be to steer clear of anything processed full stop. If you are making your own treats and require a sweetener then I would stick a natural sweetener like Palmyra Jaggery or Stevia (in its rawest form). You can use up to 1/8 less than you would do with normal sugar, so make sure to work out your ratios before baking. I have personally used Palma Jaggery, a brand that’s becoming increasingly popular and something I have tried, trust and has sound research.
My top tips for avoiding artificial sweeteners:
- Ditch the soda! Opt for bottled purified water, homemade flavoured water, herbal teas or if you need a carbonated fix then have a sparkling water with some lime, lemon or orange. Or why not jazz things up and have a home-made juice? Watermelon and mint or Lemon, orange and basil.
- Ditch low-fat and sugar-free! Add a slice of mango or some blueberries to full fat yogurt or coconut yogurt (blend together) to have your own naturally sweetened fruit yogurt
- Buy sweetener-free toothpaste like this or this
- Use natural sweeteners sensibly like maple syrup, raw honey, coconut sugar or medjool dates
- Avoid products that are labeled “low-calorie,” “diet,” “sugar-free,” or “no sugar added” since they all likely contain sweeteners and additives.
- Keep hydrated! Drink purified or bottled water instead of diet drinks. Try to avoid tap water!