What’s better for you – sugar or artificial sweeteners?

In this blog, we will highlight the discussion around artificial sweeteners such as aspartame which, due to emerging research, is extremely popular at the moment.

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that provide sweetness without the added calories of traditional sugar. They are intensely sweet (over 200 times sweeter than sugar), allowing smaller quantities to produce the same level of sweetness as sugar. 

These sweeteners are commonly used in various food and beverage products to cater to consumers seeking low-calorie or sugar-free alternatives.

What are some common artificial sweeteners and where they are commonly found in foods/drinks?

Aspartame: Found in diet fizzy drinks, sugar-free chewing gum, and various low-calorie snacks. The one that’s making the headlines!

Sucralose: Commonly used in baked goods, diet fizzy drinks, and sugar-free desserts.

Saccharin: Present in diet fizzy drinks, sweeteners (often added to hot drinks), and some processed foods.

Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K): Used in combination with other sweeteners in a wide range of products like diet fizzy drinks, protein bars, and instant desserts.

Steviol glycosides (Stevia): Derived from the Stevia plant, this natural sweetener is used in many low-calorie and zero-calorie food products.

Xylitol: Derived from fruits and vegetables, with major sources being corn cobs and hardwood trees. Commonly used in sugar-free chewing gum, sweets, and baked goods.

Are artificial sweeteners bad for overall health?

In short, it is still unclear, as although over the years some studies have associated excessive consumption of certain artificial sweeteners with potential negative health effects, such as cancer, metabolic disturbances, altered gut microbiota, and increased sweet cravings leading to overeating, much of the research is pretty inconclusive on the whole.

At present, regulatory agencies such as the FDA and EFSA have approved several artificial sweeteners for consumption, deeming them safe within specified acceptable daily intake (ADI) levels.

However, the safety of artificial sweeteners has been a topic of considerable research and debate – especially in recent times. Earlier this month the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared aspartame “possibly carcinogenic to humans” for the first time. This was because several recent studies found an association between consuming artificially sweetened beverages and certain kinds of liver cancers. This caused panic as headlines started to circulate. 

However, when delving deeper into the findings, it was determined that the available evidence on aspartame and cancer risk was inconclusive and the current recommended maximum daily dose of aspartame (40 milligrams per kilogram of a person’s weight, so around 14 cans of diet soda/fizzy drink for a 70kg person) remained unchanged.

Are fruit sugars a healthy alternative?

Fruit sugars, or naturally occurring sugars found in whole fruits, come bundled with fibre and essential nutrients. When consumed in their whole form, fruits provide a healthy alternative to satisfy sweet cravings. However, fruit juices or dried fruits should be consumed in moderation, as they can concentrate sugars and reduce fibre content.

What is the best way to consume sweet food healthily?

Moderation: Regardless of the sweetener used (whether that’s sugar or artificial sweeteners), moderation is key. Consuming excessive amounts of sweet foods, even with artificial sweeteners, can lead to health issues.

Whole Foods: Try to opt for naturally sweet foods like fruits, which also provide essential vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, as opposed to processed food items such as sweets and baked goods as much as possible.

While artificial sweeteners like aspartame may have their place (in moderation) in providing low-calorie alternatives, it’s essential to consider the bigger picture of a person’s diet and lifestyle. A balanced diet, rich in whole foods and mindful intake of sweet treats, can contribute to a healthier and more sustainable approach to sweet consumption.

Too much of anything can have a negative at some point or another, so as with many aspects of nutrition when it comes to sugar, moderation is key.

The sugar vs. artificial sweeteners debate is complex, with various factors to consider for individual health. Moderation and an emphasis on whole, natural foods remain key pillars of a healthy diet. By making informed choices and balancing sweet item intake with nutrient-dense options, we can strike a balance between satisfying our sweet cravings and supporting overall health.

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Published by Georgia Chilton

In her teenage years, a love of food and rowing led Georgia into this field as she wanted to know how to optimise performance through nutrition. With a BSc in Nutrition and an MSc in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, she has the skill set to help you track towards your goals and maximise your potential.

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