In the late 90’s/early 2000’s when I was first training and competing in figure competitions, sugar-free, fat-free, and as low calorie as possible was the name of the game! Well guess what, when you are essentially starving yourself and training to look near perfect on stage you are also craving sweets more than air! I will never forget the day another competitor took me to Starbucks and ordered me a coffee with sugar-free syrup and skim milk, I fell in love and immediately created a new route to and from work DAILY to pick up a Venti! Soon, I was purchasing my own sugar-free syrup and boxes of Splenda to have at home … and save money. Before competing, I had never really tried too many sugar-free foods or used artificial sweeteners, to be honest I was a sugar junkie and thought sugar-free only existed for diabetics. As far as I was concerned I had just been given a “hall pass” to indulge on anything, as long as it was sugar-free!! On a daily basis, I carried a baggie of Splenda in my purse in case of emergencies, my protein powder was sugar-free, I poured sugar-free Crystal light into my 2+ gallons of water, I chewed sugar-free gum and sucked on sugar-free candy, and I even put sugar-free ketchup on my tuna?! All this in the name of “sticking to the plan”, curbing cravings, and maintaining sanity. Have you ever heard the saying “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing”?! Well as it turns out, no matter if something is sugar-free or sugar-full, portion control still matters and the “devil” is in the consumption rate! In this article, we are going to focus our attention on sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners and the potential dangers that come with consuming them even when done in the name of fat-loss and health!
First, let’s start with how to identify these sugar substitutes in your products. You will see them either listed at the very end of the main ingredients or look down in the “other ingredients” section to find them. The most commonly used artificial sweeteners are listed below, they can be found used in combination with each other or as a single agent. I should note these sugar substitutes also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, have been approved by the FDA using the designation ‘GRAS’, meaning Generally Recognized As Safe (what does that really mean?!) and given ‘ADI’s’, acceptable daily intake;
- Saccharin, synthesized in a lab and seen under the trade name ‘Sweet N Low’, the first artificial sweetener discovered is 200-700 times as sweet as sugar.
- Sucralose, derived from sugar and seen under the trade name ‘Splenda’, the world’s most commonly used artificial sweetener is 600 times as sweet as sugar.
- Aspartame, an accidental laboratory discovery derived from two amino acids; one essential and one non-essential and seen under the trade names ‘NutraSweet’ and ‘Equal’, 200 times as sweet as sugar.
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), also an accidental discovery in a lab and seen under the trade name ‘Nutrinova’, is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Luo Han Guo, an extract from monk fruit extract is 10-250 times sweeter than sugar.
- Stevia, derived from the leaves of the plant stevia rebaudiana and seen under the trade names ‘Truvia’, ‘Stevia in the Raw’, ‘Sweet Leaf’, and ’PureVia’ is 200-400 times sweeter than sugar.
The last two listed are slightly different than the first five listed because they are still young in the sugar substitute game and have the least amount of research to support or deny health claims.
A separate category of sugar substitutes that can also be used in low-sugar foods and supplements are sugar alcohols. The most commonly seen are xylitol, sorbitol, erythritol, maltitol, mannitol and isomalt. These are considered nutritive sweeteners because they contain some calories but much less than real sugar. These are commonly not as sweet as sugar but are often combined with artificial sweeteners named above to counter their bitter taste and make them more palatable.
Now that you can identify these additives, let’s talk about potential problems with daily use or including them in a weight loss program. I’ve decided to cite real professionals to show science based evidence and not just speculation based on personal experience.
- There is not enough evidence proving they help with weight loss: A 2013 review found that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that replacing dietary sugar with non-caloric sweeteners alone is beneficial for energy balance, weight loss, or diabetes risk factors.The review found that restricting calories is more important than avoidance of sugar for weight management. (1)
- The evidence that is available to support health claims is inconsistent: Despite being considered safe by the FDA, and evidence to support at least a short-term benefit for weight management, there are questionable health disadvantages associated with non-nutritive sweeteners. In general, they offer no nutritional advantage. Dietary recommendations for their consumption are inconsistent across different health organizations and are often inconclusive. Taking a cautious approach may be prudent until there is more research in this area. One cannot go wrong by following the recommendations offered in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines scientific committee to “reduce added sugars in the diet and replace with healthy options, such as substituting water for sugar-sweetened soda, instead of non-nutritive sweeteners.” The American Heart Association, suggests: “For those who consume sugar-sweetened beverages regularly, a low-calorie or non-nutritive-sweetened beverage may serve as a short-term replacement strategy, but overall, people are encouraged to decrease both sweetened and non-nutritive-sweetened beverages and use other alternatives, with an emphasis on water intake.” (2)
- Studies are showing change in our taste buds: It’s 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. A very small amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes. That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatablecausing less of a desire to eat healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value.(3)
- There is evidence supporting confusion amongst our huger hormones, leptin and ghrelin: 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. *In addition to this, can you really give up diet drinks whenever you want? Don’t be so sure. Animal studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may be addictive. In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, most chose saccharin! (3)
- The gateway to our insides is being altered: Recent research shows that artificial sweeteners also alter themicrobiome and can kill off good bacteria in our gut. In 2014, Israeli researchers demonstrated, in both laboratory animals as well as humans, that glucose intolerance is related to changes in gut bacteria induced by artificial sweeteners. Gut health is linked to our over-all health including immunity, our skin, and mental health. (4)
Now that we have identified sugar substitutes and discovered the potential risks associated with incorporating them in a regular diet, we ask the question, “sugar, to substitute or not to substitute”? At Bare Bodi Fitness we are firm believers in using real forms of sugar in moderation because we are firm believers in whole food nutrition. This belief and practice is based off years of being in the fitness and weight loss industry ourselves, working with many clients and seeing positive change in their ability to adhere to new eating habits, obtain results in their bodies due to adherence, as well as experience health benefits from consuming real, whole foods. We believe in reviewing research as it is constantly changing and seeking the guidance of other professionals with further knowledge.
- Shankar, Padmini; Ahuja, Suman; Sriram, Krishnan (1 December 2013). “Non-nutritive sweeteners: review and update”. Nutrition. 29 (11–12): 1293–1299.
- Mcguire S. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Washington, DC: US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, 2015. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(1):202-4. Accessed 1/21/2019.
- Strawbridge, Holly; Harvard Health Publishing, “Artificial Sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost? July 16, 2012, updated January 8, 2018.
- Lipman, Frank M.D; Well and Good, ‘Why Artificial Sweetener Is Worse For You Than Sugar’. October 3, 2018.