Let us sugar-coat that for you… The Truth About Artificial Sweeteners.
No added sugar?! Zero sugar?! Low sugar?! Maximum taste, minimal sugar?! Diet drink?! Ever since the UK government introduced a tax on sugar, it seems everywhere we look we see the words ‘no added sugar’ as all of our favourite brands (Ribena we’re talking about you!) switch to the fake stuff in order to save money. In fact, I was in the supermarket the other day and it was almost impossible to find the normal, natural, real sugar options.
So, what’s the deal? We understand the fact that more people than ever are suffering from type-2 diabetes and we know that the idea behind all of this is to reduce sugar consumption, but are artificial sweeteners as innocent as they look?
You don’t have to search very far to see a lot of evidence that artificial sweeteners are not really making anyone ‘healthier’ and in fact, they could be causing issues far more serious than we realise.
When we break it down and look at it logically, how can anything chemically made and extracted, that is up to 650 times sweeter than sugar, be good for our bodies and our general health? It seems obvious to us who the real enemy is in this ‘sugar Vs sweetener’ story.
According to the NHS UK, these are the top sugar substitutes and the evidence surrounding them…
Issues: may affect pregnancy, cause tumours and be carcinogenic.
Acesulfame potassium, also known as acesulfame K, is a calorie-free sweetener up to 200 times sweeter than sugar and as sweet as aspartame. It has been approved for general use in the EU and the US. Critics say the sweetener has not been studied adequately and may be carcinogenic, affect pregnancy and cause tumours.
A huge range of low-calorie foods and drinks contain acesulfame K, including table-top sweeteners, chewing gum, jam, dairy products, frozen desserts, soft drinks and baked goods. Acesulfame K is not broken down when digested, nor is it stored in the body. After being consumed, it’s quickly absorbed by the body and then rapidly excreted, unchanged.
Issues: linked to cancer – mainly lymphomas and leukaemias, allergies, behavioural issues, premature births, liver damage. 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Aspartame has been subject to more criticism than any other sweetener, with potential issues ranging from allergies and premature births to liver damage and cancer.
It is low calorie and up to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Aspartame is used all over the world as a sugar substitute in thousands of foods and drinks, including cereals, sugar-free chewing gum, low-calorie (diet) soft drinks and table-top sweeteners.
Aspartame has been extremely controversial since its approval for use by several European countries in the 1980s. A 1996 report suggested a link between aspartame and an increase in the number of diagnosed brain tumours. The European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences published several long-term studies in 2006 and 2007 linking the consumption of aspartame with an increase in cancers – namely lymphomas and leukaemias – in rats.
Issues: linked to bladder cancer. 300-400 times sweeter than sugar.
It is calorie-free and 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar. A wide variety of foods and drinks have saccharin added to them, including baked goods, chewing gum and table top sweeteners. Saccharin is also used in cosmetic products (such as toothpaste, mouthwash and lip gloss), as well as vitamins and medications.
Saccharin is not broken down when digested. It is slowly absorbed into the system and rapidly excreted, unchanged, by the kidneys.
After being suspected of causing bladder cancer in rats, the Canadian government banned saccharin as a food additive in 1977 (although restricted access to saccharin as a table top sweetener was maintained). The US government also warned that it could cause cancer. Since then, many studies have supposedly disproved any link to cancer, and yet cancer rates rise.
The European Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) re-evaluated the safety of saccharin in 1995 (PDF, 29kb) and concluded that it did not pose a cancer risk to people, yet could not prove this. It stated: “While it is unlikely that the tumours in the male rat bladder are of relevance for man, it has not been possible to unequivocally demonstrate this”.
Issues: laxative effect, causing diarrhoea. Water retention, gas and bloating.
Sorbitol is a low-calorie sweetener chemically extracted from glucose. It is used as an alternative to sugar in a range of foods, including low-calorie and sugar-free foods, as well as pharmaceutical and oral health products, such as toothpaste and chewing gum.
It has the look and feel of table sugar, but with less sweetness and less calories. It also helps food stay moist, and is often found as an ingredient in the production of confectionery, baked goods and chocolate.
Sorbitol is a polyol – a type of carbohydrate generally manufactured from sugar. Polyols are banned from soft drinks in the EU because of their laxative effect. Sorbitol naturally occurs in certain foods, such as apples and pears; stoned fruit, such as peaches and apricots; and dried fruit, such as prunes and raisins.
When ingested, sorbitol is slowly and only partially absorbed in the intestine and converted into fructose in the liver. Too much sorbitol in the intestine can cause water retention, resulting in diarrhoea. If consumed in large amounts, it can cause side effects such as bloating and gas.
The EU’s Scientific Committee on Food stated in a 1985 report that ingesting 50g a day of sorbitol causes diarrhoea. Foods that are made up of more than 10% sorbitol must carry a warning that excessive consumption may have a laxative effect.
Issues: 650 times sweeter than sugar. Migraine trigger, harm to the immune system, risk to pregnancy and affects blood sugar levels.
Sucralose is a calorie-free artificial sweetener derived from sucrose and is up to 650 times sweeter than sugar. It is linked to migraines and could have a negative effect on the immune system.
Having no bitter aftertaste, sucralose is found in a broad range of lower-calorie foods, including table top sweeteners, fizzy drinks, chewing gum, baking mixes, breakfast cereals and salad dressings.
Because it is very sweet, sucralose is often mixed with other sweetening ingredients that are not calorie-free, such as dextrose or maltodextrin, to dilute its intense sweetness.
Sucralose is not absorbed well by the body and is eliminated through excretion. The EU’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) has concluded that repeated consumption of sucralose is “unlikely” to lead to accumulation in the body (PDF, 128kb).
There have been reports of adverse reactions to sucralose, including claims that it could be a migraine trigger. There is also research suggesting that it could harm the immune system.
Issues: 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, often mixed with other more dangerous sweeteners.
Stevia-based sweeteners use purified extracts from the leaves of the stevia plant, called steviol glycosides. Sold as a ‘natural sweetener’, manufacturers hope stevia will appeal to people who want a healthier alternative to sugar.
Steviol glycosides are approved for use in sugar-free soft drinks, hot beverages, jams, flavoured milk and other dairy products, cakes, desserts and alcohol, among other things. It is often used as a table-top sweetener too, yet is usually mixed with other artificial sweeteners for texture and to mask their bitter aftertaste.
Extensive research has been done on steviol glycosides, involving both humans and animals. After analysing all the available evidence, the EFSA’s reviewing panel concluded that steviol glycosides are not carcinogenic or toxic and do not pose a risk to pregnancy or children.
Issues: laxative effect causing diarrhoea, water retention, gas and bloating.
Xylitol is a low-calorie sweetener derived from a variety of plants. It is added to a range of foods, medications and oral health products, such as toothpaste and chewing gum. It has the look and feel of table sugar and is just as sweet, but contains less calories.
Xylitol is a polyol – a type of carbohydrate generally manufactured from birch and other hardwood trees. Polyols are banned from soft drinks in the EU because of their laxative effect. A variety of fruits and vegetables naturally contain xylitol, including plums, strawberries and cauliflower. Even the human body produces a small amount.
Xylitol is slowly and only partially absorbed in the intestine, and is converted into glucose in the liver. Too much xylitol in the intestine can cause water retention, which can result in diarrhoea. If consumed in large amounts, side effects can include bloating and gas. Unabsorbed xylitol is broken down into carbon dioxide and eliminated.
In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) accepted the claim that xylitol has a lesser effect on blood sugar levels than sugar, due to its slow absorption rate. This means it could help people with impaired glucose tolerance, which is a risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
What’s our take on it?
At Fysikal, we believe there’s simply no substitute for a healthy, balanced diet when it comes to keeping your body and blood sugar levels normal.
We believe the only healthy way to reduce your sugar intake, is to reduce the amount of foods you eat containing sugar. That said, if you do fancy the odd soft drink or want some squash or high juice instead of water once in a while, go for the natural, full sugar option. Not a substitute that tastes vaguely like sugar, but could cause a whole host of nasty, and some potentially fatal, health issues.
We are mammals and therefore if a substance causes issues in other mammals, such as rats, it will inevitably cause the same issues in humans.
The simple fact is that your body knows how to deal with sugar, as with other natural foodstuffs. Your body can be fooled by manmade chemical substitutes, like sweeteners, and react as though it is the real deal – i.e. sugar. The effect of the substitutes is not the same as sugar though and can cause many problems. In simple terms, the mouth receives something sweet telling your brain that you have eaten something with sugar in, the body releases insulin to a perceived rise in blood glucose levels yet with sweetener the glucose doesn’t rise. The long term effect can be weight gain, increased strain on the heart, stomach issues and type 2 diabetes to name just a few.
We recommend that in order to keep ahead of your own health and wellness, read labels and make smart choices when it comes to choosing sugar-based products. For more information, please feel free to talk to us next time you visit.