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Artificial sweeteners seem like they are in everything we eat nowadays. Advertised as healthy substitutes for regular sugar, we often get conflicting information about the health benefits or dangers of non-caloric sweeteners.
In this article, I’ll explore the latest scientific evidence that clearly demonstrates the negative impact of such food additives on our health. For example, scientists have finally been able to prove that Sucralose can mess with the chemical processes that are responsible for metabolizing glucose.
I’ll also introduce you to healthier alternatives, such as Monk Fruit Extract and explain why they are different from their lab-grown cousins.
If you don’t have time to read the full article, below is a list of healthy and unhealthy sweeteners. To find out what the scientific evidence behind this rationale is, continue reading.
Overall, I recommend reducing the amount of food containing sweeteners you consume to a minimum. If you must use sweeteners, as part of an otherwise healthy dietary lifestyle, stick with nutritive sweeteners, such as raw honey, organic maple syrup, agave nectar, or fruits.
Recommended options for non-caloric sweeteners include stevia and monk fruit extract. Due to their lack of calories, these two sweeteners don’t impact your blood sugar.
Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, let’s make sure we understand what the differences are between natural and artificial sweeteners.
In simple words, natural sweeteners are just that—not refined or only minimally processed. Think of raw honey, organic fruits, and plant-based sources, such as steviol glycosides (stevia).
The tricky part is that some sweeteners, such as Erythritol — so-called sugar alcohols — naturally occur in fruits. That’s why many people consider sugar alcohols a healthy alternative to white sugar.
Unfortunately, most of the Erythritol you can find in processed foods, such as protein bars, is highly processed and made from corn starch. As a result, I tend to consider this type of sweeteners artificial.
Additionally, I always consider the evolutionary framework when judging the benefits and risks of food. That means I ask myself if our Paleolithic ancestors could have had eaten or had access to a particular food. For example, it’s reasonable to assume, that early humans could have used the Stevia plant to sweeten dishes.
On the other hand, Sucralose or Aspartame are products we make in the lab because they don’t occur in nature.
I do that check because I consider evolution to be the longest and most comprehensive dietary case study there is. What other research do you know that was done on millions of people for millions of years?
Besides the issue of artificial vs. natural sweeteners, we also have to take their glycemic index (GI) into account. The GI tells us what impact individual food has on our blood sugar levels. For reference, regular table sugar has a GI of 100.
Most non-caloric sweeteners, such as Sucralose or Stevia have a GI of 0. That means those sweeteners do not trigger the release of insulin caused by an increase in blood sugar levels.
Manufacturers of artificial sweeteners have long claimed that their products are healthy alternatives to regular sugar because of their lack of calories. That’s why the food industry started adding sweeteners into anything from soft drinks to baked goods and other sweet food.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have any scientific evidence to prove that certain sweeteners have a detrimental impact on our health. Today, we know that artificial, non-caloric sweeteners, can confuse how our body responds to glucose. In turn, that can lead to the same metabolic issues that non-caloric sweeteners were meant to prevent.
Now that you know more about sweeteners let’s take a closer look at the following common sugar alternatives to find out what health benefits and risks they have.
This sweetener is among the most popular of non-caloric artificial sweeteners, and you can find in many products that line the shelves in grocery stores.
Sucralose comes from sucrose, and this derivative of ordinary table sugar is super sweet! Due to the sweetness level, manufacturers only need tiny amounts of this sweetener when producing soft drinks or other sweetened foods.
What’s interesting about Sucralose is that the human body can’t break any of it down to use for fuel. As a result, consuming Sucralose doesn’t cause a spike in insulin. (1)
Until recently, Sucralose has enjoyed an image as an excellent and healthy alternative to caloric sweeteners, such as table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Studies have shown that Sucralose is incredibly resistant to breakdown and thus the body cannot metabolize it to glucose. (1) That means, we excrete most of it when we use the bathroom. We also know that there is no evidence that Sucralose is carcinogenic unless you consume it in much higher dosages than the suggested daily limit. (2)
If a compound is carcinogenic, it means that it can cause cancer.
Overall, there is limited scientific evidence of any artificial sweetener being carcinogenic. That’s good news, right? Not so fast…
Most studies on the health impact of artificial sweeteners, such as Sucralose, focused on their effects on the body’s insulin response.
The reason why simple carbs, and in particular, regular sugar is terrible for your health is that they cause your pancreas to release insulin. If that happens too often and for too long, your pancreas fatigues, and the cells in your body become insulin-resistant. This condition is also known as type 2 diabetes.
The food industry tried to make us believe that non-caloric sweeteners were safe to consume because they don’t cause a spike in insulin levels.
Unfortunately, the fine-tuned chemical processes in the body are often more complicated than we want them to be. So while it’s true that sweeteners, such as Sucralose don’t make the pancreas release insulin, they do something potentially worse.
By consuming non-caloric sweeteners, you practically teach your body that there is no need to release insulin if it comes across a compound that looks like sugar.
Once your body is used to that, it might stop releasing insulin even when it’s confronted with carbohydrates (glucose). That extra glucose in your bloodstream can then lead to a host of health issues, including metabolic diseases and…you guessed it…type 2 diabetes.
That’s why I consider artificial sweeteners to be just as bad, if not worse, than regular sugar.
Sugar alcohols are another type of natural-turned-artificial sweetener that you find on the nutrition labels of many processed foods.
Most sugar alcohols are much less sweet than Sucralose and, thus, some food manufacturers use them in high quantities. I have first come across sugar alcohols when looking for low-calorie protein bars. Lately, I have also seen them in meal replacement drinks, such as Soylent or Bear Power Foods.
While those sweeteners don’t contain any alcohol, unlike their name might suggest, they do have a few calories. From a metabolic perspective, that means that the body can only partially absorb them. (3)
As a result, you can expect an insulin response, albeit an insignificant one. From a long-term health perspective, I think that natural sugar alcohols are better than Sucralose because of the lower risk of confusing the body’s glucose response mechanism.
However, the reason why I stay clear of sugar alcohols is due to their potential of causing an upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea and or other GI issues.
Below is a list of commercial sugar alcohols that you can find in many processed foods:
Note that while some of the above sweeteners have natural sources, most of the sugar alcohols you can find in processed food are highly processed. For example, the sweeteners in beer, soy sauce, protein bars, or meal replacement shakes are usually made from modified corn starch.
That’s the primary reason why I recommend to stay away from food containing sugar alcohols.
Xylitol is a very sweet substance that resembles sugar, and it naturally occurs in most plants and animals, as well as some micro-organisms. Comparable to the sweetness of Sucralose, some studies have suggested that xylitol can help reduce cavities. (4)
As a result, food manufacturers started putting xylitol into chewing gums, sugar-free candies, and similar products. However, a meta-analysis of the few available studies conducted by the Cochran institute has revealed that the evidence is insufficient.
In other words, we don’t know yet if chewing xylitol gum can help. We know, however, that this sweetener can cause bloating and diarrhea, so consume it in moderation.
Aspartame is another widely-used artificial sweetener that manufacturers have added to over 6,000 different food and drink items! (7) Compared to Sucralose, aspartame is over 200 times sweeter, which has contributed to its popularity.
Despite its widespread use, a recent meta-analysis on the safety of aspartame has concluded that this artificial sweetener can cause damage to cells in the body. As a result, consuming aspartame increases the risk of systematic inflammation, even at consumption levels below the acceptable daily intake. (8)
As a result, I highly recommend staying away from aspartame and any food containing it.
Acesulfame Potassium or Ace K is another artificial sweetener that, similar to Aspartame, is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Karl Clauss, a German chemist, accidentally discovered Acesulfame in 1967 and the European Union later cataloged it under the name E950.
Studies on mice have shown that, much like Sucralose or saccharin, Ace K alters the gut microbiome which can lead to metabolic diseases and weight gain. So if weight loss is your ultimate goal, food additives, such as Ace K, are your enemy and not your friend!
Monk fruit extract is one of my favorite sweeteners because it’s natural and doesn’t have any known side effects. These are the main reasons why Monk fruit extract is allowed on the Paleo diet.
Having a history dating back over 8 centuries, monk fruit extract is 250 times sweeter than sugar. (6) As a result, you only need tiny amounts of it to sweeten food or beverages.
Monk fruit extract is one of the most expensive sweeteners on the market, which is why you don’t see it in a lot of products.
Perhaps the most popular natural and non-caloric sweetener out there is stevia. Harvested from the leaves of the Brazilian or Paraguayan Stevia rebaudiana plant, stevia has been used for hundreds of years to add sweetness to food and drinks.
Much like other sweeteners, Stevia is much sweeter than sugar (30 – 150 times), and it might have a slightly bitter aftertaste at higher concentrations. Because of its natural origin and usage history among the Guaraní peoples of South America, stevia is a popular sugar alternative in the Paleo diet and among health-conscious consumers.
Below is a list of the most common brand names of sweeteners you’d find in the US:
To understand how artificial sweeteners have become so popular, we have to look back at the evolution of our eating habits.
Humans used to be hunter and gatherers before our ancestors started farming and domesticating animals about 10,000 years ago. But even then, modern humans had a diet rich in fat, protein, and complex carbohydrates.
Then, sometimes at the beginning of the 20th century, the lipid hypothesis was born. This medical theory postulated that fatty food, and in particular, cholesterol causes heart disease. As a result, food manufacturers started to offer fat-free or light products.
What turned the misguided initiative of the food industry into a global catastrophe was that governments around the world added low-fat recommendations to their dietary guidelines. Of course, food without fat tastes like crap, unless you add sugar.
At the time, most consumers thought that “light” meant healthy but the exact opposite was the case. When the nation finally realized that low-fat/high-carb is very bad for its health, food manufacturers responded by replacing sugar with something potentially worse.
You guessed it: Artificial sweeteners. Do you see a pattern here?
Funny enough, despite all the light and low-calorie food and beverages, obesity is rampant in our society. However, many consumers are still convinced that reducing their caloric intake using sweeteners can help them lose weight. (9)
That’s just not the case! Losing weight starts with a healthy dietary lifestyle — not a diet — that includes wholesome foods and plenty of fat. To learn more, check out my ultimate guide to healthy eating!
If you look through the aisle of your local grocery store, you can find artificial sweeteners in numerous products, including:
I consider diet sodas and other no-calorie beverages as one of the most underestimated risk factors for our health.
In the past, some nutritionists have argued that diet drinks can be an ideal option for those who are looking to lose weight or transition away from sugar-loaded beverages. I disagree!
The best alternative to unhealthy beverages is water, tea or coffee. That’s it! Numerous studies have proven that there is a direct correlation between gaining body weight and the intake of diet drinks containing sugar substitutes. (9)
Other studies have shown that there is an over 65% chance of developing diabetes from having 9 or more diet drinks per day. (10)
Besides all the factors I already mentioned, artificial sweeteners can also negatively impact the levels of certain hormones in your body.
For example, prolactin is one of those hormones that sugar substitutes can affect in both men and women. If concentrations of prolactin get too low, men can experience deficiencies in testosterone levels. On the other hand, women can experience issues with their menstrual cycle if there is too much prolactin present in the body. (13)
Although many people believe they have found success with artificial sweeteners, research has shown that there is a correlation between these alternatives and obesity. That’s because artificial sweeteners can change the makeup of the biome in your digestive system, making you feel less full than you are. That leads to increased food intake, overeating, and, ultimately obesity. (16)
Additionally, some studies have suggested that the use of excessive amounts of artificial sweeteners increases the chance of developing bladder cancer. However, considering that artificial sweeteners are present in so many different unhealthy sources of food, other ingredients could be at play here. (18)
As for sugar alcohols being used as a sugar substitute, studies have demonstrated that even though this type of sugar comes from fruit, it’s often highly processed. Additionally, sugar alcohols can disrupt and impact your gut bacteria, causing inflammation. Ultimately, that can lead to obesity and the development of symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome. (19)
Below is a list of questions I have gotten from readers. I’ll make sure to update this section as I receive additional feedback and comments.
I would argue that both are equally bad. Corn syrup is a highly processed sugar that leads to a spike in insulin levels without providing any nutritional benefits.
Low-calorie artificial sweeteners won’t increase your blood glucose levels but influence how your body responds to glucose. At the same time, they provide zero nutritional benefits.
My recommendation is to stay away from both!
That’s an excellent question that I don’t have a definitive answer for. What I know is that you can find both Stevia and Monk Fruit Extract in nature and our ancestors had access to those type of sweeteners.
Sucralose, on the other hand, is made in the lab, and there is nothing natural about it.
However, both have zero calories, and you could argue that Stevia might also confuse the chemical processes in the body related to glucose metabolism.
That’s one of the reasons why I reduced my consumption of any sweetener to a minimum. Overall, I have a pretty simplified view of food. For example, I assume that sweet is usually not good for me and if I have the choice, I always choose fat over sweet food.
Most of us have realized by now that consuming a high amount of carbohydrates, and, in particular, simple carbs, such as sugar, is not healthy. Unfortunately, the solution the food industry has offered to this problem is not a solution at all.
I would argue that artificial sweeteners make our global health epidemic even worse. There is clear evidence that sugar substitutes increase the risk of glucose intolerance (hypoglycemia or pre-diabetes), metabolic syndrome, and even obesity. (20)
That’s why I highly recommend to avoid any artificial sweeteners and, instead, use truly natural alternatives, such as monk fruit extract and stevia, in moderation.
(1) Magnuson, B., Roberts, A., and Nestmann, E. (2017). Critical review of the current literature on the safety of sucralose. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 106(A), pp. 324-355.
(2) Berry, C., Brusick, D., Cohen, S., Hardisty, J., Grotz, V., and Williams, G. (2016). Sucralose non-carcinogenicity: a review of the scientific and regulatory rationale. Nutrition and Cancer, 68(8), pp. 1247-1261.
(3) Grembecka, M. (2015). Sugar alcohols – their role in the modern world of sweeteners: a review. European Food Research and Technology, 241(1), pp. 1-14.
(4) Makinen, K. (2011). Sugar alcohol sweeteners as alternatives to sugar with special consideration of xylitol. Medical Principles and Practice, 20(4), pp. 303-320.
(5) Ferrazzano, G., Cantile, T., Alcidi, B., Coda, M., Ingenito, A., Zarrelli, A., …and Pollio, A. (2015). Is Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni a non-cariogenic sweetener? A review. Molecules, 21(1), pp. 38.
(6) Balachandran, K. (2018). Natural Sweeteners. Journal of Social Health and Diabetes, 6(01), pp. 008-010.
(7) Kirkland, D., and Gatehouse, D., (2015). Aspartame: a review of genotoxicity data. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 84, pp. 161-168.
(8) Choudhary, A., and Pretorius, E. (2017). Revisiting the safety of aspartame. Nutrition Reviews, 75(9), pp. 718-730.
(9) Fowler, S., Williams, K., Resendez, R., Hunt, K., Hazuda, H., and Stern, M. (2008). Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverages use and long-term weight gain. Obesity, 16(8), pp. 1894-1900.
(10) Ludwig, D. (2009). Artificially sweetened beverages: cause for concern. JAMA, 302(22), pp. 2477-2478.
(11) Ronda, F., Gomez, M., Blanco, C., and Caballero, P. (2005). Effects of polyols and nondigestible oligosaccharides on the quality of sugar free sponge cakes. Food Chemistry, 90(4), pp. 549-555.
(12) Johnston, C., Stevens, B., and Forety, J. (2013). The role of low-calorie sweeteners in diabetes. European Endocrinology, 9(2), pp. 96.
(14) Carlson, H., and Shah, J. (1989). Aspartame and its constituent amino acids: effects on prolactin, cortisol, growth hormone, insulin, and glucose in normal humans. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49(3), pp. 427-432.
(15) Garriga, M., and Metcalfe, D. (1988). Aspartame intolerance. Annals of Allergy, 61(6 Pt 2), pp. 63-69.
(16) Pearlman, M., Obert, J., and Casey, L. (2017). The Association Between Artificial Sweeteners and Obesity. Current Gastroenterology Reports, 19(12), pp. 64.
(17) Swithers, S., (2013). Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 24(9), pp. 431-441.
(18) Weihrauch, M., and Diehl, V. (2004). Artificial sweeteners – do they bear a carcinogenic risk? Annals of Oncology, 15(10), pp. 1460-1465.
(19) Payne, A., Chassard, C., and Lacroix, C. (2012). Gut microbial adaptation to dietary consumption of fructose, artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols: implications for host-microbe interactions contributing to obesity. Obesity Reviews, 13(9), pp. 799-809.
(20) Pepino, M. (2015). Metabolic effects of non-nutritive sweeteners. Physiology and Behavior, 152, pp. 450-455.
I was born and raised in Austria. I speak German, English, and Spanish. Since moving to the U.S., I have lived and worked in the greater Atlanta area. In my twenties, I was a professional 100m sprinter. These days I do mostly CrossFit. I'm a technologist and Apple fan. I love science and don't believe anything unless there is proof. I follow a Ketogenic Paleo diet and intermittently fast every day. I'm married and have two trilingual kids. My goal with this blog is to share what I learn so that you can spend time on something else. Check out my latest Diet, Fitness, and Technology articles.
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