Artificial Sweeteners - yay or nay?
What are they?
The Mayo Clinic describes artificial sweeteners as "any sweeteners that you use instead of regular table sugar (sucrose). Artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitute." According to the smartypants at Harvard (always look for trusted sources), "The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. It has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. How the human body and brain respond to these sweeteners is very complex." Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes, but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than regular sugar (aspartame is 7,000 times sweeter than cane sugar).
Why do they exist?
Great question. Back in the 80s, we dietitians got nutritional science all wrong (as did pretty much every other health professional). We thought consuming fat is what made us fat (spoiler alert: not true). So we started pulling the fat out of everything that we could. But manufacturers quickly discovered in their taste tests that... ew. Things actually taste pretty gross without fat in them. So what non-fat flavorful item could they add? Sugar! (and salt) So we all continued on our merry way and the world was back on its axis.
Until it wasn't. We started to find out that -oops- fat isn't the culprit. Rather when we have too many calories it gets stored as excess fat. What now? Adding fat back in won't do the trick at 9kcal/gram, so alternative... artificial sweeteners! They are sweeter in smaller amounts, a lot sweeter, and can help cut calories. Hence the birth of diet cola, sugar-free coffee syrups, and a whole new food labeling environment to navigate.
Are they all created equal? (ha)
Some people can be more sensitive to one artificial sweetener over another, and people will argue that they have different tastes, but for the most part they are the same.
Should I use them?
Probably not. There are a few instances where artificial sweeteners could be appropriate, according to the American Diabetes Assoc, like for those who are diabetic and craving something sweet that won't immediately spike blood sugar. There is a cautionary note here though--always read labels. Sometimes things labeled "zero added sugar" will contain carbohydrates from other sources.
Other than that, they often cause more problems. They are indicated for weight control in some instances, but weight gain in others. There isn't enough scientific evidence to conclusively say one way or the other, but we do know that artificial sweeteners can mess with our hunger-fullness cues. They trick our bodies into thinking we are about to get fuel/calories, but then receive none. For people struggling with digestive issues, such as IBS, they can worsen symptoms and cause further digestive upset.
Furthermore, “Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes,” explains Dr. Ludwig. That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and un-sweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable.
But I saw a scary infographic! My favorite blogger said they will kill me!
Fear-mongering has no place here. Apple seeds contain amygdalin (aka cyanide in our bodies). Pears contain formaldehyde. I will preach the oath of dietitians everywhere, everything in moderation. To boot, here's the quote that I started grad school with...
What about Stevia?
According to the ADA, "Stevia is also referred to as Rebaudioside A, Reb-A, or rebiana. Technically, Reb-A is a highly purified product that comes from the stevia plant and is several hundred times sweeter than sugar. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Reb-A is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as a food additive and table top sweetener. When something is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, it means that experts have agreed that it is safe for use by the public in appropriate amounts." Having said that, the other artificial sweeteners are marked "GRAS" as well. Stevia is said to be natural because it comes from a plant, but it actually goes through very similar processing as regular sugar. It can also cause similar digestive irritation as other sweeteners.
Interested in learning more about how this came to be? Check out the book Salt, Sugar, Fat for a fascinating look into the food industry--the innovation, manipulation, and accusations.
Do you avoid artificial sweeteners or are you a diet cola addict? Tell me about it in the comments!
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