Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Sweet or Sour For Your Health?
by Serena Hodge
It’s the age-old debate, are artificial sweeteners even good for us? Hold onto your hat, I’m about to take you through the rollercoaster of confusing evidence that exists around the safety and efficacy of their use as a sugar alternative.
But first, what exactly is an artificial sweetener? Scientifically referred to as a ‘non-nutritive’ sweetener, they are essentially a sweet compound that provides little to no calories. They are poorly absorbed in the digestive tract, making them an appealing alternative to sugar among those aiming to lose weight or manage diabetes. They are found in sugar-free soft drinks, and ubiquitous within the supermarket shelves. Find them in yoghurt, protein bars, kombucha, jelly, gum, some medications and even mouthwash! Although non-nutritive sweeteners are often collectively referred to as ‘artificial sweeteners’, there are actually three different types that exist:
- Artificial sweeteners (eg. Sucralose, Aspartame, Saccharin)
- Sugar alcohols (eg. Sorbitol, Mannitol, Xylitol, Erythritol, Malitol)
- Natural low-calorie sweeteners (eg. Stevia, Allulose, Inulin, Monk Fruit, Tagatose)
Concern around artificial sweeteners arose in the 1970’s, when a study proposed a link between Saccharin and bladder cancer. Aspartame also gained a bad rap in 2005, due to a study linking the consumption of very high doses with an increased risk of lymphoma and leukemia. It’s important to note that these findings were derived from laboratory animals, with further research into the link between artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans showing no clear associations. Considering they have only existed for a short time in history, the long-term cancer risk from artificial sweetener consumption is currently unknown. Non-nutritive sweeteners are typically added to energy-dense processed foods that provide an abundance of calories without much satiating benefit; making them easy to overconsume. Some studies suggest that the consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners could be associated with weight gain, increased appetite and increased caloric intake. While others argue to negate these findings. There’s even some emerging research to suggest that frequent use of non-nutritive sweeteners could alter our taste buds; developing an affinity for sweet foods, while making naturally sweet foods (i.e. fruit) more unpalatable. This is because they have an ultra sweet taste profile in comparison to regular sugar. But take these findings with a grain of salt. They are derived from a budding area of research that can currently only be defined as weak at best.
The conversation on non-nutritive sweeteners wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the potential negative impact they are thought to have on gut health. With some research indicating they may contribute to imbalances in the gut microbiome and a reduction in glucose tolerance (if true, this would contradict their use among people with diabetes). Excessive consumption of sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect on the gastrointestinal system (this explains the laxative warning on sugar-free gum or lollies). As they are a poorly digested sugar that is rapidly fermented in the large intestine, they can also trigger an exacerbation of symptoms amongst Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) sufferers (think: gas, tummy pains, and *insert excuse to run to the bathroom again here*). Regarding the natural non-nutritive sweeteners (Stevia, monk fruit extract); not too much is known about the health outcomes of their frequent long-term intake. Although they are often touted as the safer and healthier choice in comparison to other non-nutritive sweeteners. The verdict? This topic is complex. As it stands, there is not a clear consensus on whether there is a link between non-nutritive sweeteners and negative health outcomes. Rest assured, non-nutritive sweeteners are required to undergo rigorous safety testing under the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) before being approved as a food additive in Australia.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be consuming a diet laden with sugar or non-nutritive sweeteners; deeming this whole conversation irrelevant. But if you do feel a little dubious about their use in food, let me offer you a few simple steps you could take towards a sweetener-free way of eating. Opt for a handful of raw nuts instead of a sweetener laced muesli bar, choose the unsweetened Greek yoghurt and pair it with your favourite fruit, or make your own fruit-infused soda water to replace sugar free soft drink.
Did you know? Artificial sweeteners were discovered by accident. Forgetting to wash his hands before lunch, a researcher noticed a sweet taste on his fingers after experimenting with a coal tar derivative (benzoic sulfimide) in the lab. This led to the discovery of Saccharin in 1879.