We’ve now been educated about the negative side effects of consuming sugar. We can recognize sugar’s many names and forms, and we’re working really hard to eliminate it from our diets. So what about those “sugar free” or “diet” products – are those good alternatives when that sweet tooth craving seems too much to bear? In a word, no, but let’s find out why.
You may wonder how products labeled as “sugar free” or “diet” could possibly taste so sweet. The answer is artificial sweeteners, sometimes called intense sweeteners. These chemically manufactured substances are much sweeter than regular table sugar, some up to 13,000 times, which helps explain why they became so popular. You only need a fraction, as compared to natural sugar, to get that sweet taste, and because they are not natural, they’re non-nutritive, meaning they add virtually no calories. In a society obsessed with calorie-counting, these “magic” little substances became the go-to option.
There’s some truth to the saying, though, that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Remember that artificial sweeteners are just that, artificial…not naturally existing, but rather created in a lab. They are chemical compounds, and when they break down in the body, they can (do) cause a whole host of problems. Our bodies simply were not made to process these foreign substances.
The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was initially discovered in 1879 by accident. It existed for nearly 100 years before it was linked to bladder cancer in lab rats and banned. The ban was soon lifted, though, because of “inconclusive” research and consumer demand, aka people wanting their sweets without those precious calories.
Aspartame, too, was discovered on accident, this time by a scientist searching for an ulcer treatment. Initially the FDA denied approval because of the noted ties to severe health conditions in lab animals. Eventually, though, aspartame was approved (many believe the result of deep pockets and political clout, rather than proven safe consumption). The documented side effects are quite alarming: headaches, anxiety, depression, memory loss, abdominal pains, arthritis, nausea, heart palpitations, IBS, vision problems, seizures, tumors, and here’s the kicker, weight gain. Nevertheless, aspartame has remained on the market, most commonly found in diet soda drinks.
Another synthetic sweetener, sucralose, is sold under the brand name Splenda, and has become the favorite artificial sweetener. You can put it in your coffee, desserts, and baked goods; the quick and easy way to eat all the foods you love without the extra calories or belly bulge, right? WRONG! Splenda has been show to impair your body’s ability to regulate appetite, thus increasing those hunger pains, resulting in more eating. It also reduces the amount of good bacteria in our intestines by 50%, while increasing the pH level. Other negative effects include issues with the skin, lungs, head, nose, eyes, stomach, kidneys, heart, joints, and reproductive and nervous systems.
Artificial sweeteners have been touted as the way to have the sweet treats you love, but without the added calories. However, research has already shown they can actually lead to weight gain, and with all the other negative side effects, you may want to ask yourself, “What’s the point?” Actual “real” sugar is arguably a better option than these synthesized chemical compounds. In our effort towards a healthy balanced lifestyle, the best option is to choose natural alternatives like dates, honey, agave, or maple syrup…always in moderation, of course!
Artificial sweeteners to avoid:
- Saccharin – typically sold in pink packets; brand names: Sweet’n Low, SugarTwin
- Aspartame – typically sold in blue packets; brand names: NutraSweet, Equal
- Sucralose – typically sold in yellow packets; brand names: Splenda, SucraPlus
- Acesulfame potassium (Acesulfame-K, Ace K) – brand names: Sunett, Sweet One
- Neotame – similar to Aspartame, but much sweeter; made by NutraSweet