Are Artificial Sweeteners Actually Any Healthier Than Sugar?
We’ve all heard the news about sugar — it’s bad for you. Sugar is addictive, can lead to obesity and even suspected of increasing the risk of cancer. When I consciously started eating healthier, the first thing I did was cut down on sugar — it was rough.
Things just weren’t tasting the same anymore. After a chat with a dietitian, I was glad to find out that there are artificial sweeteners or sugar alternatives that won’t make everything taste like nightmares, failed relationships and bitterness.
But are these alternatives any better than sugar and will it help shrink your waistline? A dietitian explains.
READ MORE: Are “Sugar-Free” Treats Really Sugar-Free?
What are sweeteners?
“Sweeteners may be classified as either nutritive or non-nutritive sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners provide approximately four calories per gram and are broken down into glucose in the body,” says registered dietitian and Association for dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) spokesperson Estee van Lingen. Some examples of nutritive sweeteners include molasses, honey, and corn syrup.
These alternatives are not always the healthier alternative to sugar as they do still contain calories and will affect blood glucose levels- although they could have other benefits, like honey’s anti-inflammatory properties.
Sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, maltitol, erythritol and xylitol are saccharide derivation (simple sugar molecule) that is only partly absorbed in the small intestine giving a sweet flavour but low impact on blood glucose levels and is seen as non-nutritive.
“Non-nutritive sweeteners, such as acesulfame potassium, cyclamate and saccharin, are 30 to 3000 times sweeter than table sugar and therefore can be used small amounts providing a sweet taste but minimal calories,” explains van Lingen.
Are they safe?
Food additives such as artificial sweeteners and intense sweeteners obtained from natural sources are subjected to extremely thorough and careful control under the Food and Drugs Act (FDA) and Regulations. “The safety of sweeteners is tested in a variety of experimental animal models, at exposure rates that greatly exceed expected human consumption levels. This testing identifies the absorption, metabolism and excretion pathways of sweeteners” says Lingen.
There are several sugar substitutes have been approved for use. These include acesulfame-potassium, polydextrose, sucralose, sweeteners from Stevia plant, thaumatin and sugar alcohols (polyols) like sorbitol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol.
But while there are many sugar alternatives that there FDA have approved, there are also many studies which state that long term use of these alternatives isn’t healthy. Sweeteners like acesulfame potassium have been linked to weight gain, the potential to cause cancer and affect the early development of babies during pregnancy.
While these alternatives are not always the healthiest option but when compared to sugar, they come out on top. “As all of these have to be tested and approved safe before being sold, consuming small quantities on a daily basis will do no harm, but as with most things in life moderation will still remain key,” advises Lingen. Eating an excessive amount of sweeteners can lead to an upset tummy due to the body not being able to fully absorb them.
The use of sweeteners is a personal choice but if you are concerned that it might negatively affect your health, it would be best to talk to your doctor or a dietitian.