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Nutrition Tip of the Week: All About Artificial Sweeteners

In addition to being sold as a stand-alone product (such as Splenda), artificial sweeteners are used in thousands of processed foods and beverages, usually labeled as "sugar-free," "reduced sugar," or "diet." They are most often found in candy, baked goods, protein powders, diet soft drinks, ice cream, dairy products, canned foods, jams and jellies, syrups, and chewing gum.

Nutrition Tip of the Week (20211001)

Understanding Artificial Sweeteners

A lot of controversy surrounds the use of artificial sweeteners. Some people think they are horrible for our health and cause cancer, while others believe that they are harmless and a brilliant way to cut back on calories coming from sugar.

As a nutrition coach, I often get asked what my views are on artificial sweeteners and if I use them myself. The truth is that I consume a small amount of artificial sweeteners in my diet. Personally, I do not consume artificially sweetened beverages, but I will use sucralose (Splenda) in my morning oatmeal. I also consume yogurts that are sweetened artificially and chew sugarless gum. It has been a process for me to break my “addiction” to artificial sweeteners that began during my bodybuilding career, when I was frequently dieting and reducing calories to very low levels. Crystal Light, Diet Coke, and sugar-free Jell-O were once staples of my consumption. They were my “sweet fix” when I existed only on extremely lean proteins, vegetables, and strategically timed and precisely measured complex carbs (primarily rice & oats).

In addition to being sold as a stand-alone product (such as Splenda), artificial sweeteners are used in thousands of processed foods and beverages, usually labeled as “sugar-free,” “reduced sugar,” or “diet.” They are most often found in candy, baked goods, protein powders, diet soft drinks, ice cream, dairy products, canned foods, jams and jellies, syrups, and chewing gum.

Identifying the common artificial sweeteners on the market today:

sweetener

 

  1. Aspartame is a zero-calorie sweetener and the primary ingredient in Equal. It’s also found in soft drinks, gum, yogurt, and cough drops. It is made by bringing together two amino acids—aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is 200x sweeter than table sugar, though it is not recommended for baking as it loses its sweetness when exposed to a long period of heat.
  2. Neotame is another zero-calorie sweetener commonly found in dairy products, frozen desserts, puddings, and fruit juice. Very similar to aspartame, neotame is one of the newest artificial sweeteners on the market, approved by the FDA in 2002. Neotame is somewhere between 7,000 and 13,000x sweeter than table sugar.
  3. Acesulfame potassium is the primary ingredient in Sweet One and is found in soft drinks, gelatin, and chewing gum. The white, crystalline powder is not broken down or stored by the body, rendering it zero-calorie. It is 200x sweeter than table sugar and is very low in reported side effects.
  4. Saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener invented in 1879. It is most well known as the key ingredient in Sweet N’ Low. Though long considered a carcinogen, it was cleared as safe for consumption by the FDA in 2000. Saccharin, 300-500x sweeter than sugar, is found in a wide array of foods and products ranging from toothpaste to canned fruits and vegetables. For a super cool read on the invention (or should I say discovery) of saccharin, check out http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/saccharin-discovered-accident/
  5. Sucralose is produced by processing sucrose through selective chlorination, which removes the substance’s caloric output. Unlike other zero-calorie sweeteners, sucralose is heat-stable and is commonly used as a sugar substitute in baking recipes. Sucralose is one of the most extensively studied artificial sweeteners on the market and is the sweetener in Splenda.
  6. Sugar Alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol) are derived from glucose, sucrose, and mannose (all sugars) and provide 2.6 calories per gram versus 4 found in sugar. They are most often found in sugar-free gum, candy, and desserts that are marketed to diabetics. They have poor absorption, which in large quantities can have a laxative effect.
  7. Stevia is actually a natural sweetener derived from a plant that is native to Brazil and Paraguay. Stevia is roughly 300x sweeter than table sugar and contains no calories or carbohydrates. Stevia is the primary ingredient in Truvia. The FDA approved only the purified form of stevia, called stevioside, as safe to use. Products considered safe contain words in their ingredient list, such as stevia extract or stevia rebaudiana. The FDA currently doesn’t have enough information to approve whole stevia leaves or crude stevia extracts as they have a potential impact on your health, including kidney and cardiovascular problems. Stevia is not yet fully understood.

When working with my nutrition clients, I often refer to the consumption of artificial sweeteners as a personal choice. I neither advocate for or against it, but I will provide the following pros and cons to allow someone to make the decision that is best for them.

Pros

  • Artificial sweeteners are an appealing alternative to cut down on sugar and still have sweet flavor in food and beverages.
  • They are considered to be potentially helpful aids in weight loss as they cut down on calories as compared to their equivalent “regular” counterparts, which contain sugar at 4 calories per gram. For instance, 12oz of regular Coke contains 140 calories which come from 39 grams of sugar. Diet Coke contains zero calories and is sweetened with aspartame, a non-caloric artificial sweetener.
  • They don’t cause tooth decay or cavities.
  • They are a good alternative to sugar for people with diabetes as they do not raise blood sugar levels.

Cons

  • They are known to cause a variety of health problems, including cancer in some studies. These studies were done on laboratory mice’s bladders.
  • They have been linked to an increase in obesity as they interfere with the brain’s perception of satiety and may actually stimulate appetite. Given that they taste sweet but lack the calories found in other sweet-tasting foods, they’re thought to confuse the brain into still feeling hungry.
  • Just because a food is “sugar-free” does not mean that it is calorie-free or low-calorie. Sugar-free foods are often mistaken as “free foods,” and they are anything but. For example, five pieces (40 grams) of Hershey’s Sugar-Free Chocolates contain 160 calories and 10g of fat. The same amount of regular Hershey’s chocolate contains roughly 190 calories.
  • They are found in processed foods, which do not contain the same health benefits as whole foods such as fruits and vegetables.
  • They are known to cause digestive issues such as disruption of gut bacteria, bloating, and gas.
  • They can be a laxative in large quantities and cause dehydration.
  • In some individuals, they may cause headaches and skin rashes.

The Key Take-Aways

  • Currently, among the commercially available artificial sweeteners, sucralose is considered to be the safest for consumption (Splenda), while aspartame remains highly questionable with many potential side effects.
  • The decision to consume or avoid artificial sweeteners is a personal one.
  • Remember that while you may think that you are cutting back with “sugar-free” choices, you are still consuming calories that you need to account for.
  • “Sugar-free” foods are highly processed and generally contain other chemicals and preservatives in addition to artificial sweeteners.
  • Sugar-free products give diabetics a broader array of options when it comes to sweets and desserts.

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