“Diet” Doesn’t Mean “Healthier”: The Low-Down on Artificial Sweeteners

by | Nov 30, 2015 | Diet & nutrition

sodaWhile sugary drinks are a problem, diet drinks are no solution. Lately, science has reminded us of this. A lot.

Late last year, for instance, a study of older women – the largest of its kind – showed a link between diet drink consumption and heart problems. Compared to those who seldom drank such beverages, those who drank at least two a day had a 30% higher rate of heart attack, stroke or other cardiac event, including death.

Earlier this year, a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society confirmed earlier research showing a link between diet drink consumption and obesity. Over nearly 10 years, those who drank diet soda daily gained more than 3 inches around their waistlines; those who never drank it gained less than an inch.

Then in May, a meta-analysis in Nutrients highlighted the relationship between diet soft drink consumption and metabolic syndrome. Again, increased consumption of the drinks meant increased risk of developing high blood pressure, high blood glucose, excess abdominal fat and abnormal cholesterol levels – and so a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well.

Though scientists continue to explore why these things happen – a number of theories have been floated – the current evidence of harm gives plenty of reason to steer clear of these products and most sugar substitutes in general.

There’s certainly little to recommend them.

Synthetic Sweeteners

Think for a moment about pharmaceutical drugs and their “side effects.” Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a “side effect.” A drug has effects, period. Some of them are things we find desirable: pain reduction, a lowering of cholesterol or blood pressure, mood stabilization, and so on. Other effects – lightheadedness, say, or nausea or kidney problems – are things we don’t want. We call them “side effects,” but in reality, they’re inherently part of whatever creates the desired effect of a drug.

packets of artificial sweetenerThe situation is similar with sugar substitutes. Synthetic, not natural, they have the desired effect of adding sweetness, but they have “side effects,” too. In addition to the serious sort already mentioned, bothersome effects like headaches, migraines and mood disruptions are quite commonly reported when consuming artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Some of these may be due to the fact that faux sugars tend to upset the balance of microbiota in the gut. That balance, we are learning, may have a profound impact on mental health.

In fact, enough concern has risen around aspartame that PepsiCo drew praise when they announced that they’d no longer use it in Diet Pepsi. Of course, what they’re replacing it with – a combination of sucralose and AceK – isn’t much better, just less publicly demonized. Like aspartame, sucralose has also been shown to negatively affect gut flora balance, as well as blood sugar and digestion in general. Not much is known yet about the biological effects of AceK, though early studies such as this one may give some cause for concern.

Are Sugar Alcohols Any Better?

Overall, sugar alcohols seem to have a better safety profile than chemical sweeteners. These compounds – usually derived from plants and identifiable by the “ol” ending on their names (e.g., mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol) – tend to move right through the digestive system without having much impact on blood glucose levels. Overdo it, though, and you’re looking at some significant gastrointestinal distress – bloating, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, and the like. They may also aggravate pre-existing IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

That said, at least one may have an additional benefit: Some research has suggested that xylitol may help protect teeth against caries (decay).

What About Stevia?

stevia plantOut of all the sugar substitutes, stevia looks like the best option – at least based on our current knowledge of the product. Derived from a South American plant, stevia is much sweeter than sugar yet has little to no effect on blood glucose levels. Its taste is fairly close to natural sugar than engineered sweeteners, as well. There’s little of that weird, metallic or medicinal aftertaste that the synthetics tend to leave.

Even so, many of the most readily available brands can contain ingredients other than just stevia. Ideally, you want 100% pure stevia – in either powder or extract form – with no fillers or other additives. You should be able to find good options in any organic/natural foods market, but if not, there’s always online shopping. (Here’s one blogger’s list of trustworthy brands.)

Images by elcualquiera-photo,
frankieleon & Rosa Say, via Flickr

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