Artificial sweeteners are confusing, with many of us wondering: Should we? Shouldn’t we? Like most areas in nutrition, the answer isn’t black and white, but empowering yourself with knowledge about them is the best place to start. Every individual has their own unique characteristics, which is why we’re discussing both the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners so that you can make a fully-informed decision.
BUT FIRST, WHAT ARE ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS?
Artificial sweeteners are one type of sugar substitute. And a sugar substitute is exactly what it sounds like, something that you can use to replace sugar. There are natural sweeteners, like stevia and monk fruit; and then there are artificial sweeteners which are synthetic, or man-made.
Receptors on our taste buds send signals to our brains whenever we eat. They tell us if something is sweet, sour, bitter or salty. This works similarly to a lock-and-key, with certain receptors on the tongue responding to certain molecules in our food. When we eat or drink something sweet, the receptors recognise and respond to the sugar molecules. A message is sent to the brain that we are experiencing a sweet taste, and the brain sends a message back telling our tongues to ‘taste sweetness.’
The molecules in artificial sweeteners are different to those in sugar, but they’re still just similar enough to interact with our sweet receptors. This means that even though we’re not consuming sugar, it feels like we are!
Common artificial sweetener options include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame and neotame. These products are typically hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of times sweeter than sugar and, therefore, we only use a very small amount comparatively.
THE PROS OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
- They bring the sweetness without the calories
Artificial sweeteners play an especially important role in the lives of people who are trying to decrease their sugar intake, manage their weight or live with diabetes. Sugar gives us energy in the form of calories, and when you consume more than you need, the excess is stored as fat tissue. One way to reverse the effects of this is to swap sugar-products out for sugar-free or artificially-sweetened versions instead. Be careful, though. While this pro is particularly relevant to some people, there are many more factors to consider in the equation of weight reduction.
- They may be better for blood sugar control
They’re sweet, but they’re not generally associated with a rise in blood glucose levels. This is extremely useful to people with insulin resistance or diabetes who still want to enjoy sweet foods and drinks without the typical physiological effects they experience after consuming sugar.
THE CONS OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
- Using them may result in weight gain
When you replace all sugar with artificial sweeteners, you may not be getting the calories you need depending on the rest of your diet. Many individuals end up replacing the lost calories with other foods and drinks, which may result in weight gain. Some also begin to subscribe to the mindset that if they’re having a diet soft drink now, they can have more chocolate later, for example.
There is also evidence to show that certain artificial sweeteners may not be able to activate the proper food-reward pathways in our brains. This can affect how full we feel and can cause us to eat a lot more because we think we’re still hungry.
- They make healthier choices less appealing
Because they are so much sweeter than naturally-occurring forms of sugar, healthier and more nutritious foods (like fruit and veggies) feel like they are not as sweet as before and become less appealing. This means that people may be getting fewer calories, but they consume less of the real good stuff as well.
- They can disturb good gut bacteria
Emerging research has identified a possible negative impact of artificial sweeteners on the microbiome in the gut, particularly the composition of gut bacteria. Our microbiomes influence many aspects of our health, including weight management, blood sugar control, sleep, mood and the immune system. A negative effect in this area won’t only affect the microbiome itself, but all of these other areas as well.
While more research is still being done, if you do have a sensitive digestive tract, a history of poor gut health or are currently working on improving it, maybe leave the artificial sweeteners out of your considerations for now.
- Some options lead to unwanted GI side effects
Certain artificial sweeteners contain polyols, or sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, maltitol or xylitol. If you’ve spent a couple of sweetening everything with xylitol, you probably already know where we’re going here. Most people who consume these regularly experience gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating. People with a particularly poor tolerance to sugar alcohols, like those with IBS, will struggle even more.
- They could negatively impact mental health
Research is still ongoing, but it is worth mentioning that recent studies have begun to pick up mood changes, headaches and even addiction in individuals who consume artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners may be a useful tool for some people, particularly those who are consuming large amounts of sugar, are pre-diabetic or have diabetes. However, there are some potential negatives to consider before making the swap.
Check in with yourself and take note of any unwanted or negative effects if you do try them out. And if you’re just not sure, always rely on your dietitian for additional guidance and support. To book an appointment with me, click here.