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Can calorie-free sweeteners give you an edge?
Artificial sweeteners, also known as “fake sugars,” are hugely popular among dieters and macro counters alike, and for good reason. We all know that eating sweets and drinking sweet beverages make it harder to reach our weight and fitness goals, but why deny our taste buds when we don’t have to? Artificial sweeteners let us have our cake and eat it too.
Artificial sweeteners are found in thousands of processed foods, but are most commonly used to sweeten soft drinks, diet beverages and beverage mixes, candy and gum, yogurt, sweets and desserts, and condiments. They also lurk in sugar free baked goods, ice cream, medications, and toothpaste.
But is there a bitter truth? What about that cancer risk we all hear about? Don’t some artificial sweeteners make you gain weight? And what is the difference between all those sweeteners, anyway?
The research is inconsistent when it comes to evaluating the possible health benefits of artificial sweeteners. On the one hand, when used as a substitute for sugar, like diet soda in place of regular soda, the decreased calorie intake can assist with weight loss or maintenance. On the other hand, many carefully-designed studies suggest that use of artificial sweeteners promotes weight gain, or makes no difference at all. It seems to depend on how the products are used, and whether the person compensates for the calories elsewhere in the diet.
Here’s one problem: artificial sweeteners tend to trick the body by fooling the brain. The brain responds when taste receptors on the tongue sense sweetness, so when you eat sugar or something that tastes like it, the brain sends signals to the body in anticipation for a load of sugar. Imagine the first bite into an apple: the brain sends messages to the rest of the body that say, “Prepare! Here’s comes a load of sugar!” The pancreas releases insulin to process all that sugar coming in. But what happens when that sugar never comes? Insulin is still released, and being that its job is to decrease the levels sugar in your blood, your sugar levels will drop even lower than they were before, making you feel hungry, irritable, and maybe even weak and shaky. Furthermore, the body will think that it’s going to get those calories, stimulating the appetite/satiety centers in the brain… but confusing them along the way. You’ll want to eat more, and you might actually take in more calories than you would had you just drank water instead. So in that way, calorie free sweeteners can backfire and lead to weight gain.
For some, foods containing artificial sweeteners are “free” so they think they can eat as much of it as they want. This mentality can lead to overeating and weight gain (foods sweetened with fake sugars aren’t always calorie free).
Some recent evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners have a direct, independent adverse effect on glucose tolerance. In other words, the fake sugar itself seems to have a negative effect on the way the body processes the food you eat into energy. So for people at risk for diabetes or who have issues with blood sugar regulation, artificial sweeteners may do more harm than good.
What about cancer risk? The jury is still out. Artificial sweeteners don’t seem to increase your risk of cancer when consumed in reasonable quantities.
There are 6 main artificial sweeteners out there. You can buy them as is and use them in your own food, or you can buy products that contain them. Here’s the lowdown on each.
Found in: Sweet n’ Low® (pink packet), hundreds of sweets and medications.
An organic compound discovered by accident, saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar and is heat-stable, so it can be used in baking. It has a bitter aftertaste, which bothers some people more than others.
Found in: Nutri-Sweet®, Equal® (blue packet), Sugar Twin® (yellow packet), hundreds of diet beverages, and sweets.
Aspartame, composed mainly of two amino acids, is about 180 times sweeter than sugar.
Aspartame is not for cooking. When heated it breaks down and loses its sweet taste. But it can be added toward the end of cooking time for some recipes.
Acesulfame K or Acesulfame Potassium
Found in: Sunette® (purple packet), Sweet One (multi-colored packet), gum, low-calorie syrups, instant puddings.
Acesulfame K has been around since the 1980s. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar and can be used in baking.
Found in: Splenda® (yellow packet)
Sucralose is currently the best-selling non-caloric sweetener. It is about 600 times sweeter than sugar and is made from sugar in the laboratory. It has a sugar-like texture and appearance. It can be used in baking in a 1:1 volume ratio.
It is basically a sugar molecule with some of the oxygen and hydrogen substituted with chlorine atoms. The body doesn’t absorb the sugar chains bonded to the chlorine, so it’s eliminated from the body largely unchanged.
This sweetener, which is 8,000 ties sweeter than sugar, isn’t available in packets; it’s used mainly as a flavor enhancer and in some instant beverage mixes and low-carb foods.
These sweeteners, whose names end in “-ol,” (xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol) are made from chemically altered plant carbohydrates. They are not calorie-free, but they’re poorly absorbed. They might have a laxative effect, especially when consumed in large amounts. They’re found in a wide variety of foods, especially candies and products labeled as safe for people with diabetes.
Found in: Truvia (green packet) and many other stevia-based products
While some would argue that stevia falls under “natural” rather than artificial sweeteners, we’re including it here because it is a calorie-free sweetener used in the same ways as the other artificial sweeteners.
A natural herb extract, stevia seems to have the least side effects and risks of all of the non-nutritive sweeteners. It is a preferred sweetener for health-conscious dieters. Some detect a bitter aftertaste while others do not.
As of 2015 data, Splenda is the best-selling artificial sweetener, with $215.6 million in annual sales, followed by Truvia with $145 million, Sweet n Low at $62.4 million, and Equal at $33.3 million (source).
What does this mean for you?
If you are a generally healthy person free of diabetes, and you watch your diet and wish to lose or maintain weight, strategic use of artificial sweeteners might be a benefit to you. However, overuse might backfire. So to sweeten a daily cup of sweet tea or coffee, or for an occasional need to satisfy your sweet tooth but can’t fit a full dessert into your meal plan, fake sugar can give you that weight loss edge by saving you calories. But according to the best research we have, heavy dependence doesn’t seem to help.