Confused about all of the sugar substitutes out there? You’re not alone.
Sugar substitutes are commonly found in products marketed as “sugar free” or “diet”. These sugar substitutes are meant to please the average palate for sweetness. Yes, they’re free from table sugar (sucralose) and often zero calorie, but that’s actually where the problems begin.
With the obesity and diabetes epidemics plaguing more Americans than ever, many turn to cut calories through one of the easiest culprits: sugar. And while reducing sugar is net good, the resulting food choices are often not. The terms “sugar substitute”, “sugar alternative”, and “alternative sweetener” are vague and open to interpretation, though how they’re processed or refined and where they originate usually helps dictate how natural or artificial it is. Stevia, for example, comes from a natural source, the stevia plant, but the fine white powder you bring home is extremely processed, so be wary of ‘natural claims’. Only these highly refined stevia extracts are approved or used by the FDA - whole leaf and crude stevia extracts are not.
For us, “natural” means it’s from a whole food source, and minimally processed.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic - they may be derived from naturally occurring substances, but they are many times sweeter than sugar and often referred to as “high intensity sweeteners”. There are sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, and even natural sweeteners, that we would comprehensively classify as “high intensity sweeteners”; all pack a high sweetness into a miniscule volume with a negligible calorie count.
So what’s the problem with these high intensity sweeteners?
- They fuel the sugar addiction cycle through high intensity sweetness instead of reducing cravings for sweetness, preventing long term healthy habits.
- This in turn deceives our brains and causes full-body problems. “The sweetness receptors in your intestines, aka the taste buds of your gut, react to all sweetness, whether from sugar or stevia, the same way”, said best by @DrCateShanahan. When our tongue’s taste receptors detect sweetness, the brain is alerted that calories are on their way. The brain then signals to the pancreas to prepare to release insulin - which normally absorbs and breaks down the sugar to send it to cells like our muscles that need them for energy, and stores the rest as fat for later use. But, when you consume an artificial sweetener and no calories actually show up after all of this signaling, early studies indicate that the body increases its insulin release, which over time can lead to insulin resistance, where the body’s insulin no longer responds properly to glucose and primes our body for diabetes. Aka, our body gets ready for sugar it never gets, which throws off all of our internal checks and balances, increasing the chances for weight gain, diabetes, and cholesterol issues.
Some evidence shows the intensifying of cravings leads to us ‘making up’ those zero calorie cuts later, as high sugar consumption is often tied to overeating patterns. We tend to adopt compensating behavior when it comes to sweets—persuading ourselves, for example, that the calories we’re saving by drinking diet sodas ‘allow us’ more room for dessert. So in the end we may actually continue to eat the same total number of calories (or even more) on average.
One side effect of artificial sweeteners on the brain and taste is they can change how we taste food. “A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of a much higher volume 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. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital. So, people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, like vegetables, unpalatable. In other words, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners can detract you from healthy and nutritious foods.
- They are highly processed, often with chemicals, and have minimal to no studies showing that they are safe for long term human consumption.
What is the list of artificial or high intensity sweeteners with negative effects on the body? Monk fruit, stevia, aspartame, saccharin, - while these artificial sweeteners might not raise your glycemic index and blood sugar, they have the potential to be dangerous long term.
Go natural, and practice moderation (with everything!). Our favorite natural sweeteners for sweetening our coffee, baking, smoothies, tea, oatmeal, and more are our Just Date Syrup, coconut sugar, honey, and other minimally processed whole food options.