Health & nutrition insights.

Are Non-Nutritive Sweeteners Better Than Table Sugar?

This is a hot topic right now and I want to put in my two cents about this debate!

Non-nutritive sweeteners are those that provide sweetness without many calories. They have been used for years and include sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, stevia, sugar alcohols, acesulfame K, and neotame. These are usually marketed to people to help them lose weight. But, do they really work and are they healthy? I am going to discuss this and my thoughts:

First of all, high sugar intake is linked to obesity, which often leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and an early death.

So, health professionals, myself included, recommend eating only a small amount of sugar. The typical American diet is full of sugar-both added and in foods, and the result is not good. We know that decreasing sugar intake can lead to weight loss and better health. But, the way to do that is where the controversy is.

Many people just replace sugar with non-nutritive sweeteners.

For example, have a diet soda instead of regular or have a light yogurt instead of regular, put a packet of pink or blue or yellow into your coffee or tea instead of the white packet. But with all of these products, and plenty of artificial sweeteners in foods, why aren’t Americans losing weight? Well, when you look at all the available research we have (a review was done and published in the July 2013 Nutrition journal), there is no definite evidence that shows that non-nutritive sweeteners decrease weight or other health risk factors. There is some research that is positive for diabetics who use non-nutritive sweeteners, but for the general population, the bottom line is that you should use small amounts of sugar AND non-nutrititve sweeteners for the best health.

So, here is why I make the case to use less or no non-nutritive sweeteners, unless you are diabetic and are replacing sugar with these for blood sugar control. I do try to get my clients with diabetes to decrease non-nutrititve sweeteners as well-not to replace them with sugar but to decrease the sweet taste of everything. This is what published research shows, and of course there are some limitations, and the overall consensus from the FDA is that non-nutritive sweeteners are safe…but are they improving your health and are they totally harmless, no matter how much you take in? I think not!

People who use high amounts of non-nutritive sweeteners may be at a higher risk for weight gain, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Non-nutritive sweeteners trigger the food reward system in your body, but the cycle is not complete without the calories to go with it. This may cause an increase in hunger and sugar cravings. Several large studies show a correlation between intake of non-nutritive sweeteners and weight gain in both adults and children (i.e. people who use non-nutritive sweeteners gained more weight throughout the study than those who did not use them). If the patients have a controlled food intake (they stay in a facility that gives them only a certain amount of food), they do lose weight with non-nutritive sweeteners if they replace sugar and decrease calorie intake. However, in real life, the opposite is true which suggests that people overcompensate (i.e., I am going to have a diet soda so I can get a burger and fries). The sweet taste increases appetite, but if there are no calories to go with it, people tend to eat more at later meals In rats (which are not humans, but this may be significant)-there was a decrease in beneficial bacteria in the gut when sucralose was eaten. Sucralose at high temperatures can produce chloropropanols (a potentially toxic compound). Sucralose may affect the absorption of medications. Sucralose may affect glucose and insulin levels (even though it is supposed to go through your GI tract without being absorbed or doing anything-this is apparently not the case.

And, one of my biggest reasons to limit or cut out non-nutritive sweeteners is that thousands of products have a sweet taste and this is making everyone want everything sweet.

This encourages sugar cravings and dependence. Many people cannot eat unsweet oatmeal or drink unsweet tea or even have fresh strawberries without something sweet on them (with or without calories).

Non-nutritive sweeteners are just feeding this dependence on sweet taste and in my opinion is not helping improve our health.

I recommend decreasing or eliminating all sweeteners, whether they have calories or not and enjoying the taste of real food. Your taste buds will adjust-try to limit sugar to 150 calories a day or less and cut out artificial sweeteners. Focus on whole foods with lots of fruits and veggies. Give it a month and you will likely feel better and your taste will change!

The one non-nutritive sweetener that I would recommend, if you must have one, is Stevia.

It has no research that I found that is harmful and it may be helpful for diabetics. However, it still fuels the sweet cycle. When you don’t cover up the flavor of food with sweet stuff, you can appreciate the complex flavors and real taste of it. Try it….you just may like it!