Medically reviewed by Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian (RD) & Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
Artificial sweeteners promise to hit your sweet spot - minus the calories. But we know, there’s always more to the story, than meets the eye. Following is a deep dive into the world of artificial sweeteners; common types, effects on the body - and whether they cause harm. I also cover the topic of added sugar, and answer two of the most popular questions I get asked: “How much sugar should you have in a day?” and “Is white sugar bad for you?” What’s more, learn what you can use in place of artificial sweeteners.
The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) give a *wary* approval to the use of artificial sweeteners, to replace sugar - to combat increased weights, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes - all risk factors for heart disease.
Although, artificial sweeteners may strike us as an effective solution to sweeten foods - without the adverse effects of consuming too much sugar, I’d argue, they may make things worse - not better. I suspect, artificial sweeteners only *feed* our sweet tooth.
Dr David Katz puts it perfectly,
Bathe taste buds in sweet all day long, and they need much higher concentrations to take notice. And that's just what artificial sweeteners do.
What Are The Most Common Types Of Artificial Sweeteners?
Sugar substitutes fall into numerous categories, but what they all have in common is, they have a sweet taste, and fewer calories - than plain sugar.
Today, we'll specifically discuss "artificial sweeteners," aka "non-nutritive sweeteners," which are synthetic chemicals - a minuscule amount tastes immensely sweet.
How Do Artificial Sweeteners Affect Our Bodies?
Now that’s a million-dollar question!
There are many theories to try to explain the affect of artificial sweeteners on our bodies. But, the reality is, we don’t know for sure. In other words, there isn’t conclusive evidence. Plus, it might play out differently in different people.
- Is it because people feel that they can eat cake because they’ve switched to diet soda?
- Perhaps it’s because the sweeteners change our taste preferences; so fruit starts to taste worse, and veggies taste terrible?
- Maybe artificial sweeteners increase our cravings for more (real) sweets?
- It can be that the sweet taste of these sweeteners, signals to our body to release insulin, to lower our blood sugar; but, because we didn’t actually ingest sugar, our blood sugar levels get too low, to the point where we get sugar cravings.
- Some even say (and at least one animal study suggests), that saccharin may inspire addictive tendencies toward it.
- Maybe there is even a more complex response, that involves our gut microbes, and how they help to regulate our blood sugar levels.
Negative health effects from artificial sweeteners are cited all over the place, and while many studies show effects, others don't. Cancer? Maybe yes, maybe no. Heart disease? Maybe yes, maybe no. Not to mention, much of the research has been conducted on animals, which may, or may not, translate to humans.
Ironically, evidence (including randomized controlled trials), DOES NOT clearly support the *intended* benefits of nonnutritive sweeteners, for weight management. In fact, observational evidence suggests, that regular use may be linked with increased waist circumference and Body Mass Index (BMI), as well as higher cardio-metabolic risk; we’re talking, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome.
What’s more, this study, looking at the effects of diet soda consumption, in Multi-Ethnic groups, highlighted an increased risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes - in those drinking diet drinks daily.
Although, artificial sweeteners have been deemed “safe” by regulatory bodies in many countries around the world, some authorities also note, that the health claims, and the long-term safety, associated with artificial sweeteners - require more research.
Besides weight and cardio metabolic impacts, people who rely on artificial sweeteners, may end up replacing the lost calories - later in the day - with other food sources. This may mean, you’re offsetting any weight loss or health benefits.
Is White Sugar “Bad” For You?
I avoid using labels such as good and bad, when it comes to food (that includes sugar and artificial sweeteners). Of course, some choices are better than others, but by labelling food in this manner, we inherently pass judgement on ourselves and others. And, when we eat so called “bad foods,” this can fuel feelings of guilt and shame.
It’s well established, we need to minimize intake of added sugar - as much as possible; to help control unhealthy weight gain and rotten teeth. We know, Canadians are the second largest buyers of ultra-processed foods (soft drinks, chocolate and candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals) in the world.
This isn’t doing our health any favours.
Ultimately, we eat to “nourish” our bodies, and enjoying whole nutrient-rich foods is the best choice for optimal health and vitality. You probably know that added sugar ranks pretty poorly on the list of nutrient-rich foods. In fact, it offers little to no nutritional benefits. Hence, the term - empty calories.
How Much Sugar Should You Have In A Day?
The American Heart Association (AHA), share the following recommendations of the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day:
Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons)
Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons)
How does that translate to actual food?
- One 12-oz can of Coke provides just over 9 teaspoons of added sugar
- A regular-sized Snickers bar provides 7 teaspoons of added sugar
- Coffee Frappuccino from Starbucks has 9 to 17 teaspoons of sugar - depending on the size.
- One Boston cream-filled donut from Tim Hortons is nearly 4 teaspoons of sugar
Did any of these surprise you?Negative health effects from #artificialsweeteners are cited all over the place, and while many studies show effects, others don't. Following is a deep dive into the world of artificial #sweeteners; common types, effects on the body… Click To Tweet
What Can I Use In Place Of Artificial Sweeteners?
Consuming added sugar on a *regular basis* isn’t a wise choice, but the solution may not be to replace all added sugar with artificial sweeteners.
I highly recommend reducing your sugar intake, so you naturally re-train your palate and start enjoying the taste of real food, that isn't overly sweet. This way, you're reducing your intake of added sugar, as well as not needing to replace it with artificial sweeteners.
If you’re not one to go “cold turkey,” try having ½ teaspoon less of sugar in your hot morning brew or reduce a ¼ cup of the sugar called for in some recipes. Have a go at diluting juice with water or plenty of ice and work your way up (or should I say down!).
Real Food Picks To Add Sweetness:
- Apples & unsweetened apple puree
My Favourite Natural Sweeteners To Use Occasionally:
- Maple syrup
- Coconut sugar
Surprised that stevia didn't make the cut? Some argue, it's not truly natural; the extraction process requires the use of ethanol.
Sweet Recipes - With Zero Added Sugar Or Artificial Sweeteners
Here's a round-up of tasty recipes to satisfy your sweet tooth - minus added sugar or artificial sweeteners. From chocolate pudding to strawberry and kiwi nice cream - these sweet treats certainly don't skim on flavor and promise to hit the sweet spot.
No Added Sugar Strawberry Kiwi Banana Nice Cream
Healthy Watermelon Strawberry Popsicles
2-ingredient Blueberry Slush Papaya Boat | No-Added Sugar, 5-min Recipe
Zero Added Sugar Chocolate Chia Pudding
No-Bake Cranberry Energy Bites
I'd love to hear from you! Do you use artificial sweeteners? What's your favourite way to bring sweetness to recipes? Comment below!
Shahzadi is an award-winning registered dietitian (RD) regulated by the College of Dietitians of Ontario and a certified diabetes educator (CDE), approved by the Canadian Diabetes Educator Certification Board. A notorious foodie, she's dedicated to helping you end your cooking wars, transform your health, and be the best version of yourself! Shahzadi is an on-air nutrition expert for CTV Your Morning and a regular contributor to other national media outlets.