Some people swear by sweeteners as a ‘healthier’ low-calorie alternative to sugar to help with weight loss and management, whilst others believe them to be the cause of certain metabolic diseases such as diabetes, as well as obesity, and some cancers. Despite some limited evidence which supports both sides of the argument, there is still so much to learn and understand about the impacts (good or bad) that artificial sweeteners have within the human body. Research in this area is definitely one to keep your eye on in the near future!
So, what actually are they?
Artificial sweeteners are chemical substances that are used to sweeten food and drinks in place of added sugars. Unlike ordinary sugar, they are significantly lower in calories, hence why they are often branded as better for you or a healthier alternative and used by people who are trying to lose weight. The majority of sweeteners can be found in highly processed foods, including cakes, biscuits, desserts and diet versions of fizzy drinks. Although these types of food can and should be enjoyed as part of a healthy and balanced diet, excessive processing and the fact they often contain artificial additives, such as sweeteners, mean they should not be consumed in large quantities on a regular basis. Some of the most common artificial sweeteners found in food and drinks in the UK and America include Stevia, Xylitol, Aspartame, Acesulfame K, and Sucralose.
How much sugar should you be eating?
In the UK it is recommended that individuals aged 11 years and over should consume no more than 30g (around 7 cubes of sugar) of free sugars per day (1). Free sugars refer to those which are not naturally occurring within foods, like they are in fruits for example. With the food and drink that we are surrounded by on a daily basis, whether that is in the meal deal or offers section of a supermarket, the snack van at the station on the way to work, or on your coffee shop lunch break, it is relatively easy to go over the recommended amount. To put it into context, one 330ml can of coke contains roughly 39g of sugar (that’s 10 cubes!) (2), which goes to show that it does not take a lot to reach the recommended amount.
The role of artificial sweeteners on metabolic diseases & gut health
Speaking recently on Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s Feel Better Live More podcast (3), genetic epidemiologist and best-selling author Tim Spector discussed the impact of artificial sweeteners. From this conversation, as well as evidence-based findings in the research, it was suggested there is no clear benefit of swapping sugar to artificial sweeteners (so a regular fizzy drink vs a diet version) when thinking about reducing the risk of diabetes, obesity, and other metabolic diseases (4). This suggests that artificial sweeteners are no better (or worse) for you than normal added sugars. Tim also suggested that sweeteners have been shown to have an negative impact on gut microbes, which is also supported by the current research (5). He highlighted that this disruption in the gut microbiome may explain why we are not seeing a reduction in weight or risk of metabolic diseases, however, human studies in this area are limited and so actual mechanisms underpinning these potential explanations are not yet clear (5). Another interesting point made was that the consumption of ultra-sweetened products actually increased cravings for sweet foods and encouraged the avoidance of other foods, especially in children. Tim said that these super sweet foods can sometimes ‘set the bar too high’ for actually tasting the sweetness of foods and leaves people wanting more, as they are not satisfying their cravings.
What can you add instead?
When you are next doing your food shop or in the kitchen creating a yummy recipe try to look for ingredients with naturally occurring sugars, or choose products which state that they contain no artificial additives or preservatives. Non-artificial sweeteners that make great additives and enhance a foods palatability include:
• Maple syrup
• Agave nectar
• Normal sugars
• Fruit juices
However, it is important to note that the addition of this type of sweetener, i.e. those that do not occur naturally in food but are not chemically derived, contribute to your daily intake of 30g of free sugars.
As you can see, there is mixed evidence as to whether artificial sweeteners are good or bad for you. Whilst they may be useful for people who want to lose weight be in a calorie deficit and for oral health, there are also currently little to no clear benefits for the inclusion of artificial sweeteners in the diet, particularly from a metabolic disease and gut health perspective. To reduce your daily intake of added sugars, try choosing foods which are low in added sugars or free from artificial additives and preservatives, and include foods containing naturally occurring sugars to get your sweet-fix. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the up-and-coming research in this area as well as it’s definitely a topic of growing interest!
This blog post was written by Ellie Morris, a Sport and Exercise Sciences graduate, who will start her MSc in Applied Human Nutrition at Oxford Brookes University later this year. She has completed an internship with Clarissa Lenherr Nutrition, and during her final year of her undergraduate degree was an applied sports nutrition intern at the University of Birmingham. Ellie has also had some experience as part of the MyNutriWeb team to learn the behind the scenes of one of the UK’s leading nutrition CPD resources. She shares yummy meal and snack ideas over on her Instagram @nutritiouslyellie.
4. Toews, I., Lohner, S., de Gaudry, D. K., Sommer, H., & Meerpohl, J. J. (2019). Association between intake of non-sugar sweeteners and health outcomes: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised and non-randomised controlled trials and observational studies. bmj, 364. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4718
5. Pang, M. D., Goossens, G. H., & Blaak, E. E. (2020). The impact of artificial sweeteners on body weight control and glucose homeostasis. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7. DOI: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2020.598340/full
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