Many people are trying to reduce the number of sugar and calories in their diet in their quest for better health. As a result, artificial sweeteners are more popular than ever. But, what exactly are these sugar substitutes, and are they good for your health?
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are widely used in various food and beverages marketed as "sugar-free" or "diet," including soft drinks and baked goods. (1) These sweeteners may be derived from naturally occurring substances, such as herbs or sugar. They can also be human-made in a lab to produce the perfect end product. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than sugar. (1)
Artificial sweeteners offer a sweet flavor without any added calories or sugar. On the surface, they seem like they could be the answer to long-term weight loss. (2) A typical American consumes at least one can of sugar-sweetened soda per day, adding about 150 calories, with almost all of those calories coming from sugar. The same amount of diet soda contains 0 calories and 0 sugar. (2) The choice seems obvious.
However, as with most things, there is much more to those health claims.
Impact on human health
There has been a lot of research on the effect of artificial sweeteners on health and the results are mixed. (3) The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. It has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. Yet, how the human body and brain respond to these sweeteners is very complex. (3)
One concern is that people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits. This speaks to the mindset of, “Well, I had a diet soda, so it’s ok to have a piece of cake or a handful of cookies.” (3)
It’s also possible that these products change the way we taste food. Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. (3) A minuscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. This means that people who constantly use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing, and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, intolerable. (2) Artificial sweeteners may play another trick, too. Research suggests that they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, we may crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight. Participants in the San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda. (4) In a more recent study, daily consumption of diet drinks was associated with a 36% greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk for type 2 diabetes. (5)
How to consume in moderation
The debate on the safety of artificial sweeteners is a hot topic. Studies leading to FDA approval have ruled out cancer risk, for the most part. (6) However, those studies were done using far smaller amounts of diet soda than the 24 ounces a day consumed by many people who drink diet soda. Unfortunately, we really don’t know what the effect of regular consumption of artificial sweeteners will do on long-term health.
If your goal is a healthier diet, instead of eating a lot of processed foods with artificial sweeteners, choose whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. These foods can be naturally sweet and also have beneficial nutrients. Occasionally consuming artificial sweeteners is not detrimental to your health, but the more you can choose whole foods, the better.
If you are consuming foods with artificial sweeteners there are two options that may be superior. Stevia and monk fruit are two non-nutritive sweeteners that are naturally found in nature. These may be a better option than some of the more traditional artificial sweeteners.
Stevia is a very sweet tasting plant that has been used to sweeten beverages since the 16th century. (7) The stevia plant has also been a part of folk medicine and popular knowledge for centuries. The flavonoid composition has been tested and associated with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant mechanisms and used for medicinal purposes. (12) As a nonnutritive sweetener, stevia contains little to no calories and is a healthy alternative to sugar. In addition, using stevia also has potential benefits for health. Research has shown that stevia sweeteners have no effect on blood glucose levels or insulin response, making them a great low glycemic alternative to sugar. (8) Additionally, the use of stevia has no effect on blood pressure or body weight. (8)
Monk fruit is a small, green gourd that resembles a melon. Grown in Southeast Asia, monk fruit was first used by monks in the 13th century - hence the name! The sweetness in monk fruit comes from a high level of antioxidants, making it 150-200 times sweeter than sugar. The high antioxidant content of monk fruit provides protection against free radicals, which play a role in cancer, heart disease, and other diseases. (9, 11) When used as a potential prebiotic, monk fruit could benefit human health through its interaction with gut microbiota. Studies reveal that monk fruit actually increases microbiome diversity! (13) Additionally, using monk fruit in place of sugar may have beneficial effects on insulin secretion. (10)
Overall, the use of artificial sweeteners should be kept at a minimum if you are looking for optimal health. When choosing artificial sweeteners, look for stevia or monk fruit as those will be the best whole food options for sweetening a meal or beverage. Luckily, CorePerform uses these two alternative sweeteners to get the best tasting protein powder on the market. CorePerform is a tasty solution to keep your microbiome and body healthy. Check out some of our recipes from Protein Apple Streusel Muffins to Blueberry Cheesecake Overnight Oats here.
- Tandel KR. Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2011;2(4):236-243. doi:10.4103/0976-500X.85936
- Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008;16(8):1894-1900. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.284
- Nettleton JA, Lutsey PL, Wang Y, Lima JA, Michos ED, Jacobs DR Jr. Diet soda intake and risk of incident metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Diabetes Care. 2009;32(4):688-694. doi:10.2337/dc08-1799
- Liu L, Zhang P, Wang Y, Cui W, Li D. The relationship between the use of artificial sweeteners and cancer: A meta-analysis of case-control studies. Food Sci Nutr. 2021;9(8):4589-4597. Published 2021 Jun 23. doi:10.1002/fsn3.2395
- Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, et al. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2010;55(1):37-43. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2010.03.009
- Xu, Q., Chen, S. Y., Deng, L. D., Feng, L. P., Huang, L. Z., & Yu, R. R. (2013). Antioxidant effect of mogrosides against oxidative stress induced by palmitic acid in mouse insulinoma NIT-1 cells. Brazilian journal of medical and biological research = Revista brasileira de pesquisas medicas e biologicas, 46(11), 949–955. https://doi.org/10.1590/1414-431X20133163
- Tey SL, Salleh NB, Henry J, Forde CG. Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia- and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake. Int J Obes (Lond). 2017;41(3):450-457. doi:10.1038/ijo.2016.225
- Chen WJ, Wang J, Qi XY, Xie BJ. The antioxidant activities of natural sweeteners, mogrosides, from fruits of Siraitia grosvenori. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2007;58(7):548-556. doi:10.1080/09637480701336360
- Borgo J, Laurella LC, Martini F, Catalán CAN, Sülsen VP. Stevia Genus: Phytochemistry and Biological Activities Update. Molecules. 2021;26(9):2733. Published 2021 May 6. doi:10.3390/molecules26092733
- Xiao R, Liao W, Luo G, Qin Z, Han S, Lin Y. Modulation of Gut Microbiota Composition and Short-Chain Fatty Acid Synthesis by Mogroside V in an In Vitro Incubation System. ACS Omega. 2021;6(39):25486-25496. Published 2021 Sep 21. doi:10.1021/acsomega.1c03485