Many people hate the way artificial sweeteners taste. If you are a fan, you’re probably pretty loyal to a certain type of sweetener.
But, is one option better than the others? Turns out that the answer isn't nearly as straightforward as you might think.
First things first, what's a sugar substitute?
Sugar substitute is a term that describes sweeteners that aren’t, well, sugar. Not all artificial sweeteners are completely artificial either. For instance, sucralose or Splenda (the yellow packet), stevia, and monk fruit are naturally derived. Well-known synthetic substitutes include saccharin or Sweet’N Low (the pink packet) and aspartame or Equal (the blue packet). Another group of sweeteners found in gum or candy are alcohol sugars, and end in -ol as in xylitol or sorbitol. Acesulfame potassium (also called acesulfame K), neotame, and advantame are a few other FDA approved artificial sweeteners.
These sweeteners are described as non-nutritive, which means that they have basically no nutritional benefits. And, that is a characteristic that throws nutrition experts off a little.
“I’m a nutritionist so I counsel people on how to eat foods that are nutritious and benefit them; artificial sweeteners don’t,” says Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the University of Miami Health System. They are not harmful either, she adds.
Not harmful, but not helpful
The studies that link cancer to artificial sweeteners have proven to be inconclusive, says Rarback.
In the '70s, a study that involved rats linked saccharin – the oldest FDA approved sugar substitute – to bladder cancer and this led to it being classified as a carcinogen. This result only applies to rats, according to the National Cancer Institute, and, “human epidemiology studies (studies of patterns, causes, and control of diseases in groups of people) have shown no consistent evidence that saccharin is associated with bladder cancer incidence.”
Another common belief is that artificial sweeteners negatively impact your metabolism and may lead to weight gain. This, again, is murky. While there does seem to be a correlation between people who drink a lot of diet soda and weight gain, that doesn’t mean that one causes the other, she says.
When you eat something that is sweetened artificially, you may not feel as sated, or satisfied, as you would by consuming something with natural sugar. Consuming sugar releases brain chemicals that feel like a reward, Rarback says. Artificial sweeteners may not trigger the same response.
Another explanation could be more behavioral than physiological. “Sometimes people think when they save calories on one thing, they can use it as an excuse to indulge in something else,” says Rarback.
Why do artificial sweeteners exist?
The two main reasons: to lower caloric intake and to lower sugar intake. If you have diabetes, your doctor may require you to limit your sugar intake. The American Diabetes Association website says that using artificial sweeteners may help curb those sugar cravings.
If you want to decrease the sugar in your diet, these colorful packets may be a good option. “If you drink a lot of soda or drink it for the caffeine, diet soda might be a good ‘step down’ for you," says Rarback, "but I would never recommend it to someone who doesn’t drink sugary beverages.”
Keep a food diary to pinpoint when you have sugar cravings. “Maybe you just want something sweet because you’re bored, or perhaps your cravings are associated with a mid-afternoon slump” Rarback says. “If that’s the case, try some fruit infused water and a walk.”
For baking, try applesauce instead of sugar, says the American Heart Association. This may not be a good option for people with diabetes, but it may help generally healthy people who are trying to eat a little bit better.
Another sugar-hack: instead of buying sweetened yogurt, buy plain and add your own. “Even if you add your own packet of artificial sweetener, that will be a whole lot less than the already sweetened stuff on the shelf,” says Rarback.
Natasha Bright is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. You may have seen her writing featured on the Huffington Post and Scary Mommy websites.