Welcome to post #8 and the FINAL post in the “Is my food safe?” series! If you missed any of the others, you can find links and the webinar recording on this page.
I hope you all have learned a lot from this series and feel more comfortable about the food supply. Today we will be looking at artificial sugars and comparing them to regular sugar.
Lets get started with finding out what artificial sugars even are!
What is the difference between artificial and natural sweeteners?
Synthetic (artificial) sweeteners: Sugars chemically modified in a lab that do not contain fiber, vitamins, minerals and do not provide calories or energy to the body.
Artificial sweeteners are a substitute for sugar made by chemically altering sugars or amino acids. They are commonly found in certain “sugar free” soft drinks, baked goods, candy, puddings, jellies, and dairy products.
Synthetic, or artificial sweeteners are in contrast to natural sweeteners.
Natural sweeteners: Sugars found naturally in foods (e.g., glucose and fructose). [I’ve written more on simple sugars and complex carbohydrates in this article.] Natural sugar provides energy to the body and comes in a variety of forms such as glucose, sucrose, and fructose.
Sucrose is the most common natural sweetener. Basically, this is just table sugar, brown sugar, or other common syrups like corn syrup or simple syrup.
Sucrose is made of two basic sugars, fructose and glucose, bonded together. When we consume sucrose, our digestive system breaks up the bonds and we absorb the fructose and glucose separately.
Glucose is absorbed into the blood and carried for use by all our cells. Fructose is absorbed as fructose and then converted by the liver into a glucose-like substance that is treated as glucose by the body.
Fructose is also naturally found in fruit. Hence why it is called “fruit sugar.”
The rest of this article will focus specifically on the benefits and risks of artificial sweeteners. For more on natural sweeteners, or the role of sugar in a healthy lifestyle, check out my sugar articles!
Stevia – a different kind of sweetener.
Stevia is an interesting case! Technically stevia is a natural, non nutritive sweetener. It’s natural, as it is grown as a plant. In fact, I grow stevia in my back yard! You can eat the leaves and taste their sweetness. My kids love them. I often will brew the stevia leaves along with mint leaves for a sweet mint drink.
Stevia plants are also processed in a lab to create white powder sweetener, or liquid based sweetener that can be added at home, or by food companies into prepared foods. Stevia is good for sweetening cool foods, and you can bake with it, but not above 400 degrees.
The FDA considers Stevia to be “generally recognized as safe.”
How are artificial sweeteners regulated?
The FDA provides risk assessment recommendations for the consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) based upon scientific studies or a substantial history of consumption by humans.
The FDA has approved these NNSs as safe for use in foods and beverages:
- Aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®)
- Acesulfame-K (Sweet One®)
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low®)
- Sucralose (Splenda®)
Currently there is no evidence that use of any of the available non-nutritive sweeteners increases the risk of cancer in humans.
How do they compare to real/ cane sugar?
Artificial sweeteners contain 0 grams of sugar and are much sweeter per volume than natural sugar. For some people, artificial sweeteners can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, cramping, and indigestion.
How do they affect our health?
Dental cavities: Replacing sugar-sweetened products with those sweetened with NNS reduces the risk of dental caries. In particular, the sugar alcohols such as erythritol and xylitol do not feed oral bacteria like sugar does (the bacteria that cause cavities).
Diabetes: NNS do not have any effect on blood sugars, making it a common sugar replacement for sugar for individuals with diabetes.
Weight control: Scientific evidence suggests that NNS can be beneficial for short term weight control. However, the effectiveness for long term weight loss is unknown.
Headaches: Consumption of aspartame has been shown to trigger migraine headaches in a small number of people.
Who should avoid non-nutritive sweeteners?
People with bowel disorders should be cautious with regular use of products sweetened with NNS. Many NNS, may cause a disruption in the normal gut bacteria and aggravate symptoms in those with various types of bowel disorders including
- Malabsorption syndromes
- Irritable Bowel Disease
- Dumping syndromes
Even among individuals with no bowel disorders, NNS may cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. If artificial sweeteners cause you these negative side effects, common sense says to stay away!
Putting it all together:
- Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) are high-intensity sweeteners and are typically noncaloric or very low in calories. Some NNS are naturally occurring, plant-derived products, while others are synthetic.
- In the United States, NNS are not required to be listed on food or drink labels unless a threshold amount per serving is reached; saccharin is the only sweetener for which disclosure of the exact amount present in a food product is required.
The Big Picture:
Artificial sweeteners are well regulated and there is no evidence to suggest that they cause cancer in quantities approved for use in food. Some artificial sweeteners may cause stomach distress in individuals and it is an individuals choice as to whether they want to consume artificial sweeteners.
Personally, I only consume artificial sweeteners in a diet drink here and there. At home, I use table sugar, brown sugar, or stevia leaves to sweeten my beverages!
So should you use artificial or natural sugars? The decision is yours, and you should make the decision based on the factors that are unique to you as an individual!
-Julie & The Interns
P.S. I said this last time, but its important to remember- our food is the safest it has been! I want to emphasize that I trust the process of foods being sold in the US with all of the quality control measures set forth by the USDA and the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services), which includes the FDA and the CDC.
For more information/reading:
- American Heart Association Article – https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/nonnutritive-sweeteners-artificial-sweeteners
- American Diabetes Association Journal – https://spectrum.diabetesjournals.org/content/25/2/104
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners.” Mayo Clinic, 8 Oct. 2020 – www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936.
- Strawbridge, Holly. “Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-Free, but at What Cost? – Harvard Health
- Carocho M, Morales P, Ferreira I. Sweeteners as food additives in the XXI century. Food Chem Toxicol 2017; 107:302.