As health experts continue to warn the public about the harmful effects of consuming excessive amounts of sugar, it’s no surprise that more people — at least 75% of Americans according to the International Food Information Council — have started reducing their sugar intake.
Replacing sugar with low-calorie sugar substitutes such as aspartame, stevia, and sucralose has become more common, and food manufacturers worldwide have also cut back on the use of sugar in their products.
Low-calorie sugar substitutes are often seen as healthier alternatives, but are these artificial sweeteners actually good for you?
The answer? It’s complicated.
While it’s true that sugar substitutes are either calorie-free or low in calories, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re also not bad for you.
Despite claims that certain substitutes like stevia are natural and plant-based, all sweeteners go through some form of chemical processing before they are sold to consumers. Although low-calorie sugar substitutes are considered safe for consumption by the FDA, numerous studies have shown that consuming too much food and drinks with artificial sweeteners can increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and certain types of cancer. Artificial sweeteners have also been found to cause potentially harmful disruptions in the gut microbiome, which could make you more susceptible to disease.
Other studies also suggest that eating more artificially-sweetened foods may cause you to crave sugary foods more often. One study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2010 has found that Aspartame — the artificial sweetener found in diet soda — can increase one’s appetite more compared to natural sugar.
So, by consuming more calories elsewhere in your diet, you are basically defeating the purpose of using sugar substitutes in the first place.
Furthermore, foods that use sugar substitutes aren’t always lower in calories or fat than those that use normal sugar. Some brands of cookies, candies, ice cream, and yogurt that are labeled as “sugar-free” and use artificial sweeteners have been found to have similar calorie counts as their regular counterparts.
It’s not all bad news, however. Unlike regular sugar, sugar substitutes are less likely to cause a spike in one’s blood glucose, which is particularly good news for diabetics. Sugar substitutes can also be used in much smaller amounts since they’re much sweeter (unlike table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup), which means that you’ll be less likely to consume far more calories than your body actually needs. They can also be a great addition to nutrient-dense foods such as oatmeal, which is a much better breakfast option than pancakes or donuts.
Although cutting back on sweeteners altogether is still the best option, using sugar substitutes can be a good stepping stone to a healthier lifestyle, whether you’re diabetic or someone’s who’s just trying to lose some weight.
Just like many things in this world, however, moderation and a bit of caution is key.