Concerned about your sugar intake? You’re not alone. Many Americans are trying to cut back on the amount of sugar they consume, however it can be a hard adjustment. Artificial sweeteners have been created as a low-calorie alternative, but are they safer?
Also known as non-nutritive sweeteners or high-intensity sweeteners, artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar, which means they can be used in smaller amounts. Currently, the major sources of non-nutritive sweeteners in the typical American diet are beverages and table-top sweeteners.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of artificial sweeteners. The FDA has approved six sweeteners in the United States: saccharin (Sweet N’ Low), aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Sunnet), sucralose (Splenda), neotame, and advantame. Two other artificial sweeteners that are recognized as safe by the FDA are sweeteners created from the stevia plant and monk fruit extract.
The FDA notes that sweeteners are considered to be safe for use by the public unless there is a known reason for harm. People with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), for example, have difficulty metabolizing phenylalanine, which is in aspartame and therefore must avoid aspartame.
Another category of sweeteners is sugar alcohols, which again, provide a sweet taste with minimal calories. Examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, and erythritol.
There have been reports in the media that sweeteners are linked to an increased risk of diabetes, however, a systematic review on this topic has found that the evidence is not clear.
The use of sugar alcohol has been shown to cause gut issues when taken at higher doses, particularly in those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), so care is needed to avoid unpleasant side effects. For people who are currently in treatment and experiencing diarrhea, sugar alcohols have been shown to exacerbate diarrhea and we recommend avoiding sugar alcohols if you are currently experiencing diarrhea.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that people can enjoy sweeteners when eaten as part of a diet that is guided by nutrition recommendations.
Across the pond, Public Health England has endorsed the use of sweeteners in foods and drinks by acknowledging their useful role in weight management, stating that:
“Replacing foods and drinks sweetened with sugar with those containing no or low-calorie sweeteners could be useful in helping people to manage their weight as they reduce the calorie content of foods and drinks while maintaining a sweet taste. For this reason, PHE acknowledges that foods and drinks containing low/no-calorie sweeteners can be useful in helping to reduce calories.”
The use of artificial sweeteners is an individual choice. If you are currently consuming foods that have are high in added sugar then switching to an alternative that contains sweeteners may help to transition to more whole foods which in the long run is our recommendation. It’s also important to be aware of the “health halo” effect where people overestimate the healthfulness of certain foods because they contain artificial sweeteners, even though they may not be low in calories, and may contain a lot of fat or other carbohydrates. Also, there can be a temptation to eat more calories elsewhere when you are ‘saving’ some by having diet products.
Our recommendation is to focus s on consuming plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and legumes, and treating sweet foods as treats rather than everyday occurrences.
We believe that sugar should not be demonized, and so we choose to use natural sugars in our food instead of sweeteners. We promote moderation and correct portion control of all sweet things so that these foods can be a part of a healthy diet with no guilt.
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