Updated: Jan 14
When I started my food journey, I realized that I had a lot of sensitivities to sugar due to a now diagnosed condition called SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). For years, I struggled between my sweet tooth and the need to live a more sugar-reduced lifestyle. So figuring a way to enjoy some sweets without setting off a chain reaction of horrible symptoms became a bit of an obsession. Thus making this article was, in part, my own need for exploring my options in replacing sugar but also for helping people on their own food journey in discovering how they can live a healthier lifestyle.
Most of us have heard about the benefits of living a sugar-reduced lifestyle. Some of us also have some serious health-related issues that are tied to the overuse of sugar, myself included. So watching sugar intake has become a necessity for some. But quitting sugars cold turkey is tricky, hence the popularity and need for artificial sweeteners. They seemed to be our saving grace from sugar addiction. Diet pop became every dieter's dream come true. But are they as angelical as they claim to be? There are so many different types on the market and it can easily get overwhelming to choose between one or another. Most importantly, I wanted to know how good they are for your health.
Here are three categories of artificial sweeteners that I have found:
1. High-Intensity Synthetic Sweeteners
These have been chemically altered from the sugar molecule so that the body doesn’t absorb them as sugar. You can either find them under their brand names or by their chemical names. These include saccharin (Sweet & Low), Acesulfame (Sunett and Sweet One), Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, and Canderel), Neotame (NutraSweet) or sucralose (Splenda). (12) These are typically the ones that you will find in diet soft drinks and most other diet treats. (12) They are much sweeter than sugar itself, but they work because the body doesn’t recognize them as calories are therefore not stored as fat, nor do they spike your blood sugar.
However, some studies do suggest that with long term use, these sugars could cause dementia and increase the risk of stroke.(2) Studies do not prove cause and effect, but they do, however, suggest that there is a relationship. Another study also suggests that they cause an imbalance in the gut microbiota.(1)
2. Sugar Alcohols
At the exception of erythritol, which is created by fermenting glucose, these sugars are obtained by chemically adding an OH atom to their molecules. They are easily recognizable in the list of ingredients since they include “ol” at the end of the name. Their taste is between 25% to 100% as sweet as sugar. (4)
Erythritol and Mannitol do not affect gut microbiota. Lactitol, isomaltose, xylitol, and maltitol cause increased gut bifidobacteria numbers resulting in flatulence and digestive issues. If you have IBD, IBS, you might need to reconsider these due to their laxative properties.
Sugar alcohols include:
· Ethylene glycol
· Polyglycitol 5
Erythritol occurs naturally in foods such as wine, beer, mushrooms, pears, grapes, and soy sauce.(4) Like many other sugar alcohols, its sweetness lies anywhere between 25-100% of sugar.(4)
Erythritol is the exception to the rule in that it is the only sugar alcohol that doesn’t feed bad gut bacteria, cause gastrointestinal issues or create an intolerance to glucose.8 9 It is also considered a safe additive by the FDA after tests on its toxicity, carcinogenicity, and reproductive hazards. (4)(5)(6)
3. Natural High-Intensity Sweeteners
Just because they are natural does that really mean that they are healthier for you? This includes sweeteners like stevia, yacon syrup, and monk fruit. These are sweeteners that can be harvested in nature with minimal amounts of transformation. Just like the other two types of zero cal sweeteners, the body doesn’t absorb them as sugar, making them safe for people with diabetes and those who are looking to lose weight. What makes them particularly interesting is that they are not associated with a risk of stroke or dementia, unlike the chemical sweeteners such as sucralose.
This sweetener, still relatively new to the market, comes from the extraction of the stevia leaf. It is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar but has a bit of a bitter licorice aftertaste that some people may dislike. (9) These products are made from Rebaudioside A (Reb A), a glycoside that gives stevia its sweetness. However, stevia has been shown to have certain side effects like bloating, gas, and even nausea. (9)
Monk fruit extract contains mogrosides, which is primarily responsible for its zero caloric characteristics. (9) It is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar and entirely safe for diabetics to use. (9) It is also said to have a minimal impact on the gut microbiota.(10)(11)
Nothing really replaces living a sugar-reduced lifestyle. Of course, reducing sugars from your diet is extremely difficult but is sometimes necessary, especially if there are specific health issues involved in making this decision. So using artificial sweeteners can be a great way to transition yourself off of sugars permanently but should not be used as a quick fix to an ongoing problem. Artificial sweeteners are often overused and can cause even more issues if continued over long periods of time. The better alternatives for this transition would be monk fruit and erythritol, which do not change your gut microbiome and have no side effects later on in life. These products are commonly found in health food stores.