Sweet foods and drinks taste good, there is no argument about that. But, sugar can add lots of calories to your diet with very few nutrients. The increase in empty calories from sugar may be a contributor to obesity and related-chronic diseases like diabetes.
So, if we can’t eat sugar, what do we do instead? We invent an alternative because, let’s be honest, we aren’t giving up our sweet stuff. Artificial sweeteners, substances that make food taste sweet without the added calories, are clearly an amazing invention of science. But, are they are they really healthier than sugar?
What Are Sugar Substitutes?
Sugar substitutes are calorie-free man-made or natural substances that taste like sugar. Many of them are way sweeter than sugar. They are sometimes called “non-nutritive sweeteners” because they don’t provide any nutrition. There are eight sugar substitutes that are currently approved by the FDA.
The artificial or man-made sweeteners are:
- Aspartame (Equal)
- Saccharin (Sweet n Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Acesulfame-potassium (Sunett, also in many beverages)
- Neotame (used for low-calorie foods)
- Advantame (newly approved)
Natural non-nutritive sweeteners, made from plants:
- Stevia (Truvia): extracted from the Stevia plant
- Monk fruit extract: newer to US market, used in China for 1000s of years
As you can see, there are many options to choose from to sweeten your foods and beverages. All of these are on the FDA’s list of “generally recognized as safe”, but are they actually safe?
Are Sugar Substitutes Healthy?
As with most things in nutrition, the answer is it depends. Many of these sugar substitutes have been around for many years and have been extensively researched. Aspartame, in particular, is one of the most researched food additives. Yet, there is still a lot of negative claims about it in the health community.
A few valid concerns are related the impact they might have on obesity and blood sugar. There is some evidence that sugar substitutes may increase insulin resistance and negatively impact metabolism, leading to obesity. But, on the flip side, other studies have shown that sugar substitutes may help promote weight loss and a lower calorie intake.
A recent study compared the impact of both natural and artificial non-nutritive sweeteners to sugar. They found no differences in insulin levels, blood sugar, or calorie intake in any of the groups. The subjects who consumed the sugar substitutes ended up compensating for the lack of calories by eating more food later in the day.
Another study found that monk fruit might have anti-inflammatory properties, which may in turn help reduce diabetes risk and help with weight management.
It is important to note that there are people who are sensitive to artificial sweeteners, as they may be a trigger for headaches and migraines. If that is the case it is best to avoid them all together.
Sugar vs. Sugar Substitutes: Who Wins?
So, should you use artificial sweeteners or just stick with regular sugar? The answer is it depends on you. A little bit of regular sugar does make life sweeter.
But, you should understand there is sugar in almost everything, even if a food doesn’t taste sweet. We are probably getting way more than we need, even without snacking on candy or having dessert regularly. Unless you are super active, you probably aren’t burning off the extra calories from all the sugar. Limiting your consumption is probably recommended.
That being said, artificial sweeteners can help you enjoy the taste of sugar without too many additional calories. They are great for diabetics, who experience a major blood sugar spike with regular sugar. They might be beneficial for those trying to lose weight, preventing them from feeling deprived.
But, they should also be consumed in moderation as the FDA does have upper limits for many of these sweeteners. Most of these limits are far beyond what a normal person would eat on a regular diet.
The bottom line is sugar substitutes in moderation can be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
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