Sweet or Not - The Unsweet Truth About Artificial Sweeteners

Everyone loves a good sugar-fix. Creamy, sweet coffee or a decadent dessert. Maybe a fountain soda, or some sweet tea. The real question is... what is used to sweeten these treats?

In today's day and age of diet culture, people are looking to cut calories in any way. Marketing experts use trends like '100 Calorie Snack' or 'Low Calorie' to brand their packaging, hoping to appeal to those trying to fit in last year's jeans.

However, the facts most consumers DON'T know (or choose to pay attention to) is the danger behind the ingredient labels on these diet-friendly snacks, drinks, and treats.

If you haven't yet played our Scavenge-ology episode on artificial sweeteners, you can play it here. We cover all of the information in an easy to digest episode.

With the rise of sugar substitutes and sugar alternatives, there are plenty of products on the market that allow you to satisfy your cravings without the calories. But what is the price of using these alternatives? Cane sugar, table sugar, natural sugar, vs. stevia, sucralose, or asparatame. These are all ingredients you may find on the back of a diet-friendly product.

Added sugar is one of the most controversial topics in the American diet. It's been associated with several health issues from cancer, to diabetes, to obesity. Researchers have found that a large amount of sugar in your diet can be connected to several health issues. That's not all. Sugar also causes a dopamine release in the reward-center of our brains, similar to what happens when an addict consumes a drug.

Due to the rise of these controversial topics, many companies understand that you still want to satisfy your sweet tooth without the risks of sugar. So, welcome sugar substitutes to the conversation.

Natural sugars are sugars found natural-ly in whole foods such as fruits or vegetables. Glucose, fructose, and others are examples of sugars naturally found in fruits or vegetables we eat. On the other hand, artificial sugars are sugars created in a lab and chemically modified to provide sweetening but typically without the calories.

The FDA has approved 5 artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. It has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. In 2015 the sugar substitute business was valued at over 13 billion dollars and continues to grow.

More research is being done on how the human brain responds to these sweeteners, including common products like diet sodas. One of the most widely used sugar substitutes is aspartame. I is often found in diet sodas and it is also a component of some medications. You may recognize it under the brand names Nutrasweet or Equal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved aspartame for use in food and drink back in 1981. Aspartame contains 4 calories per gram, similar to sugar. It is, however, around 200 times sweeter than sugar. A 2017 review of the latest research found no evidence that this artificial sweetener was effective for weight management.

News reports over the last few decades have claimed that aspartame causes or increases the risk of: headaches, dizziness, seizures, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, lupus, and congenital disabilities. The following are likely to contain aspartame: diet soda, gum, sugar-free candy, sugar-free ice cream, low-calorie yogurt, and reduced-calorie fruit juice.

With other sugar substitutes on the market, many companies have started to supplement these in place of aspartame as awareness of the dangers of the chemical has started to grow. Splenda, Sweet n Low, and the list goes on. Although the side effects of these sweeteners don’t measure up to aspartame, the way they affect our brain chemicals is similar. 

Sucralose, which was accidentally discovered by U.K. scientists while they were developing new insecticides, remains the biggest sugar substitute on the market, according to retail tracking service Infoscan Reviews and Information Resources, Inc. Aspartame is made from two amino acids, while sucralose is a modified form of sugar with added chlorine. Studies found that sucralose raises blood sugar levels by changing the makeup of the gut microorganisms, specifically bacteria, in the intestines that help with nutrition and the immune system.

Scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel named Segal and Elinav added saccharin, sucralose, or aspartame to the drinking water of mice and found that their blood sugar levels were higher than those of mice who drank sugar water -- no matter whether the animals were on a normal diet or a high-fat diet. Some studies have monitored individuals for several years and have even found an increase in weight and waist circumference with the regular intake of these sweeteners. Participants in some studies showed an increased BMI (body mass index) as well. This helps to assess if a person has a healthy weight or not. Some individuals with a higher BMI may be more likely to develop certain metabolic diseases. Another study suggests that those who consume artificial sweeteners regularly, may have a higher risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

A 2013 review published in Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism cites several animal studies that report a link between regular intake of nonnutritive sweeteners and increased food intake. The review suggests that sweeteners may increase appetite by disrupting the signaling process that usually occurs when a person eats foods with more calories. Sweet tastes typically signal to the body that food is entering the gut. The body then expects to receive calories and signals when eating should stop by making a person feel full or satiated. A person experiences the same sweet taste when they consume sweeteners, but the body receives fewer calories than it might otherwise expect to. If this happens regularly, according to the theory, the body unlearns the association between sweet tastes and calories. This reversal means that high-calorie foods will no longer trigger feelings of fullness. This may lead to overeating.

A later review from 2016 further discusses the link between low-calorie sweeteners and metabolic disease. It suggests that regular, long-term intake of sweeteners may disrupt the balance and diversity of bacteria living within the gut. We all know the gut health craze going on, which explains how our gut is the center for our overall health and immunity. Anything that disrupts this, is not beneficial. Animal studies show that this type of disruption can result in glucose intolerance, which is a known risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

All of the nutritional evidence behind us, low calorie snacks may lead to binge or overeating. If an individual believes she switched to diet soda, so she 'earns' a couple pieces of cake or treats daily. Or, foods that used to be sweet, like fruit, no longer have the same effect because fake sugars are 4x or more as sweet, which also leads to overeating. The risks of fake sugars and sugar substitutes are huge. Natural is the way to go!

Natural sugars like honeymaple syrup, agave nectar, stevia leaves, and Molasses are not only safer, but also offer their own health benefits. Naturally containing enzymes, vitamins, and other minerals that benefit our bodies... it is a no brainer. Trading a few extra calories per day to sweeten a treat vs risking the health effects of fake sugar is more than worth it. Try experimenting with a few of these options and seeing how you feel. Maybe some of the unexplainable symptoms are easily fixed by such a simple change.

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