The Good and Bad of Sugar Substitutes

The Good and Bad of Sugar Substitutes

Do you know what (most) peanut butter, pasta sauce, and breakfast cereals have in common? They all contain sugar! A lot, if not most, processed foods do.

Sugar consumption has increased insanely during the last couple of centuries. Two hundred years ago, Americans ate around 2 pounds of sugar per year. Today? We're at about 152 pounds per year!

What's the problem, you ask? The problem is, we've also seen an increase in metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes. Sugar is also nothing but empty calories. A lot of empty calories. And with a rise in obesity as well, it’s worth taking a closer look at sugar and our consumption.

Welcome to the third and final post in our Sugar Series, helping you understand and improve your relationship with sugar!

(You can find the first and second posts in the series here and here.)

Before you throw out every last bit of sugar in your house, keep reading to learn all about sugar substitutes.

The rise and fall of artificial sweeteners

With the rise in sugar consumptions and metabolic conditions, people needed to find a culprit. Simple carbs and sugar were the first to take the blame.

Most people love sweet foods, so cutting them out completely was never going to be an option. People began looking for sugar alternatives. And so, the rise in popularity of artificial sweeteners began.

Low in calories and blood-sugar friendly, artificial sweeteners quickly became a staple for those trying to cut sugar out of their diets.

For a while, many people thought artificial sweeteners were preferable. In recent years, a shift in mentality (and research) has taken place.

We now know these sugar substitutes aren't all necessarily healthier. They may not affect your blood sugar, but that doesn't mean they can't impact your health in other ways.

Natural sweeteners have also made their way onto the market. They're a healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners, and they have fewer calories than sugar.

There's also the reality that new studies are bringing, which shows sugar may not be as bad as we thought. What is bad, though, is overconsumption.

In other words, sugar, in moderation, should have no side effects on your health unless you have some pre-existing conditions. Many say it may be healthier than many of the alternatives.

The truth is that all the options have pros and cons, and we're going to explore them in this post to help you make sense of it all.

 

The problematic artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, and more. Of them, aspartame is the best known. It was also the most utilized artificial sweetener for a long time.

Most studies agree that these sweeteners can help if you're trying to lose weight or manage blood sugar. However, these benefits come at a price.

Aspartame, for instance, has been linked to Parkinson's disease, systemic lupus, and multiple sclerosis. Shocking, right?

Saccharin, on the other hand, can disrupt the gut and cause digestive issues. This is true of most artificial sweeteners. It is, however, a side effect mostly seen in prolonged consumption.

Some people may react more quickly. For instance, a study analyzed seven people using saccharin for five days. At the end of the study, four out of seven people showed symptoms of a disrupted gut microbiome. But wait, the news gets worse. Those who saw an alteration to their gut microbiome also had poorer blood sugar balance.

In other words, these types of artificial sweeteners may not be as safe for diabetes as we thought.

Recently, there has also been a lot of talk regarding the relationship between artificial sweeteners, headaches, and depression.

Most studies found no definitive link between the use of aspartame and depression. However, they also agreed the issue is subject to individual sensitivity. Some people react stronger than others to aspartame and may see an increase in headaches or even depression.

What makes some more vulnerable than others in this regard? We don’t know yet. So the best thing to do is to be mindful of how you feel. Do you believe your symptoms are caused by aspartame? Quit it!

Natural sweeteners

If you’re trying to limit your sugar intake, you’ll be happy to know artificial sweeteners aren’t your only option.

Natural sweeteners like stevia, maple syrup, agave, or coconut sugar, are healthier alternatives that get along quite nicely with your blood sugar.

Stevia

Stevia is a sweetener that has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years. It has zero calories and, consumed in moderation, has no side effects. Higher amounts may cause digestive issues like nausea or diarrhea. Defining “high amounts,” however, is difficult. This is usually subjective, each person having a different tolerance.

Usually, stevia is natural, made from the leaf of garden flowers like asters. You should still be mindful when purchasing a sweetener labeled as stevia. Some could contain chemicals that increase the risk of side effects. Try to choose a natural option by looking out for ingredients such as stevia extract of Stevia rebaudiana. Most of these should be safe.

Stevia has a particular taste, very different than that of sugar. If you’re used to sweetening foods with sugar or aspartame, be prepared for a change in flavor.

In terms of side effects, research is still ongoing, but some issues have been found. For instance, a study published in 2017 shows that non-nutritive sweeteners such as stevia may be linked to an increase in BMI.

Harvard Health agrees with these findings and sees a link between non-nutritive sweeteners, including natural ones, and obesity.

The most natural options

While stevia is considered a natural sweetener, it has to go through some processing to become the sweetener we know. Non-nutritive sweeteners may have no calories, but they do come with risks. While stevia is a safer option than aspartame, it has still been linked to potential health risks.

Suppose you want to stay away from these types of sugar substitutes. In that case, a good option is the truly natural, unprocessed alternatives such as maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar, and even raw sugar.

While these sweeteners have calories, they also have nutrients - vitamins and minerals. In other words, they’re not empty calories and may even have health benefits beyond weight loss.

Coconut sugar, for instance, has a low glycemic index [link to diabetes article]. This means that it won’t cause such a big blood sugar spike like table sugar.

And agave (margarita, anyone?) has small amounts of vitamins B2, B6, B9, and K.

Remember not to overdo it, though. While they are natural sweeteners with few side effects, they are still simple carbs, so moderation is best. People with diabetes should also talk to their doctor to ensure these sugar substitutes are okay for them.

Sugar alcohols

The final stop on our list of sugar alternatives is sugar alcohols such as xylitol or erythritol. They are somewhere in between artificial and natural sweeteners. Not 100% natural, but not wholly artificial either, as they can occur in nature to some extent.

Most of them have few calories, and they do not impact blood sugar levels. Unlike natural and artificial alternatives, their taste is very similar to sugar, so replacement may feel easier.

On a molecular level, they have characteristics of both sugar and alcohol, hence the name. Don’t be alarmed, though! They contain neither of those ingredients.

They are keto-friendly, can be used by people with diabetes, and may even be better for tooth health than sugar and other substitutes.

They also have fewer side effects. Digestive upset is a risk when consuming high amounts. But, like the other sweeteners, “high amounts” is a subjective term that will vary from individual to individual.

Another common worry when it comes to sugar alcohols is that they often contain GMO ingredients (ingredients that have been genetically modified), including corn syrup.

The bottom line

Sugar substitutes are incredibly varied - natural, artificial, or somewhere in between, you have plenty of options to choose from. They all have their benefits, but they also have side effects. The truth is, moderation is required, no matter how unprocessed or seemingly healthy your sweetener of choice is.

What do you think about sugar substitutes? Which ones have you tried? Are there any you’d like to try or avoid after reading this article? Follow us on the Silver Solution Facebook page and let us know your thoughts!

Health/Medical Disclaimer

This blog post does not provide health or medical advice. This blog post is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health or medical advice. Before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate medical and healthcare professionals. We do not provide any kind of health or medical advice. The use or reliance of any information contained on this blog is solely at your own risk.

Sources

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5591507/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25231862/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8373935/

https://www.cmaj.ca/content/189/28/E929.full

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sweeteners-time-to-rethink-your-choices-2019022215967

15th Nov 2021 Written by Laura Vegh. Edited by Brandee Nichols, retired Registered Nurse.

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