You probably know the negative health effects of eating too much sugar, especially “added sugars” like in fizzy drinks, sweets, baked goods, and many commercially-available cereals, just to name a few. Added sugar is hiding just about everywhere in the supermarket.
Yes, ingesting refined sugar spikes your blood sugar and insulin, and increases your risk for a whole host of issues.
A while ago, one of the food industry’s responses to the demand for lower-calorie foods that still taste great, was artificial sweeteners.
The idea behind them is that you can still get the sweetness, without the calories; like when you have a “diet coke” versus a regular one. Theoretically, this was going to help people maintain a healthy body weight, and hopefully not increase anyone’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, or obesity.
But, it doesn’t always work out the way we think it will…
Types of artificial sweeteners
Sugar substitutes fall into several categories, but what they all have in common is that they have a sweet taste and fewer calories than plain sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic chemicals where a tiny bit tastes very sweet.
They’re also known as “non-nutritive sweeteners,” and include things like:
● Saccharin (Sweetex),
● Acesulfame potassium,
● Aspartame (Canderel), and
● Sucralose (Splenda).
Health effects of artificial sweeteners
Negative health effects from artificial sweeteners are cited all over the place, and while many studies show effects, others don’t. Cancer? Maybe yes, maybe no. Heart disease? Maybe yes, maybe no. Not to mention that much of the research has been on animals, which may or may not translate to people.
I did want to point out one ironic thing, to do with artificial sweeteners and weight.
One study found that people who tend to drink diet sodas have double the risk of gaining weight than those who didn’t.
Another study has shown an increased risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes for those who consume diet drinks every day.
While these results don’t apply equally to everyone, they do somehow seem ironic, don’t they?
How do artificial sweeteners affect our bodies?
There are so many ideas out there to try to explain it, but the reality is we don’t know for sure; plus, it might play out differently in different people.
● Is it because people feel that they can eat cake because they’ve switched to diet drinks?
● Perhaps it’s because the sweeteners change the taste preferences so that fruit starts to taste worse, and veggies taste terrible?
● Maybe artificial sweeteners increase our cravings for more (real) sweets?
● It can be that the sweet taste of these sweeteners signals to our body to release insulin to lower our blood sugar; but, because we didn’t actually ingest sugar, our blood sugar levels get too low, to the point where we get sugar cravings.
● Some even say (and at least one animal study suggests) that saccharin may inspire addictive tendencies toward it.
● Maybe there is even a more complex response that involves our gut microbes and how they help to regulate our blood sugar levels.
What about the natural alternatives?
Many people are aware of the negativity around artificial sweeteners but what about the ‘so-called’ natural ones. Here are the most common ones:
Stevia comes from a plant native to North America. It is very sweet but contains no calories or carbohydrates and has no effect on blood sugar. Used as drops or in small amounts it is one of the best sugar alternatives, however, there are many ways it is manufactured and it can end up being highly processed. Also check your product is 100% stevia as it can often be mixed with other sugars and artificial sweeteners.
- Agave Nectar
This comes from a plant and on the face of it looks like a great alternative to sugar. It is lower on the glycaemic index than sugar. The biggest problem with this product is the high fructose content. We know that this causes liver metabolism issues, insulin resistance and weight gain. For these reasons, I advise you to avoid agave nectar.
Xylitol, brand name Total Sweet, is a sugar alcohol. It has been shown to help benefit oral health and so you may find it in toothpaste or chewing gum. It has also been shown to cause some digestive issues. For this reason, use sparingly.
- Brown Rice Syrup
Not as sweet as sugar but high on the glycaemic index. It does contain some nutrients coming from the wholegrain but also contains a lot arsenic making it unsuitable for young children. I would not recommend this as a healthy alternative to sugar.
- Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is packed full of nutrients which is a great advantage. It is completely natural but is still high in sugar. I often use this as a sugar alternative in ‘treat’ foods. Treat as sugar, so keep your intake low but know that when you are having a treat, swapping to coconut sugar does increase the nutrients.
- Maple Syrup
A completely natural product but again, like coconut sugar it is high in sugar and calories. Using it sparingly to give a little sweetness to occasional food is just perfect. It is incredibly high in many nutrients so a little every now and then will do you good.
Honey has so many great healing properties and is full of nutrients. Just like maple syrup and coconut sugar it is a great alternative to sugar when used in moderation.
- Brown Sugar
Brown sugar contains more nutrients than it’s processed white counterpart. It is still sugar and so must be used sparingly.
Blackstrap molasses are a great way to increase your nutrient intake. Very high in minerals, especially iron. You can use molasses in baking and marinades. Use sparingly as you still need to treat this as sugar.
Fruit is naturally high in sugar but also contains lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Using bananas, dates and apples to sweeten food is a great idea. Watch your intake of the dried versions, especially when using dates!
Understand that added sugar is not good for you, but the solution may not be to replace them all with artificial sweeteners or even the natural ones.
I highly recommend reducing your sugar intake, so you naturally re-train your palate and start enjoying the taste of real food that isn’t overly sweet. This way you’re reducing your intake of added sugar, as well as not needing to replace it with artificial sweeteners.
It is best to use truly natural sugars such as honey, maple syrup and fruits to sweeten your food but you must do this in moderation.
Also remember that white sugar itself is completely natural!
Ideally you want to keep your sugar consumption to no more than 5 teaspoons a day, that’s just 20g!
Start by having ½ teaspoon less of sugar in your hot morning drink. Try reducing the sugar called for in some recipes. Try diluting juice with water.
For more help on how to reduce your child’s sugar intake click here.
Your body will thank you!
Recipe (naturally sweetened): Sweet Enough Matcha Latte
- 1 teaspoon matcha powder
- 200ml almond milk, unsweetened
- 1-2 teaspoons maple syrup or honey (optional)
1. Heat almond milk and maple syrup/honey (if using) in a small pot.
2. Add matcha powder to cup.
3. When almond milk is hot, add about a ¼ cup to matcha and stir to combine.
4. Add rest of the milk to cup.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: You can steep a chai tea bag in the milk if you prefer chai tea over matcha.