The Truth About Sweeteners

Here at InstructorLive, we look at the data. So we thought we’d look at whether sweeteners are all they’re cracked up to be, and for those who demonise them, is that warranted either?

Let’s take a look at the truth behind sweeteners.

What are sweeteners?

Sweeteners are artificial products that mimic the sweet taste we love in sugar. It doesn’t, however, contain the same caloric content.  

To first understand how we have ended up in this situation, it pays to look at the evolution of taste.  

The primary purpose of taste is survival. Generally, sweet foods were safe to eat, whereas bitter or sour things could, at best, cause digestive discomfort, or at worst, prove fatal.  Sweet foods also generally contain sugars, which serve as sources of glucose. Our brains and red blood cells have an absolute need for glucose.  There are some flaws in this theory of sweetness; however, we know manufacturers use fat, salt and sugar to create the sweet spot in the palatability of certain food products. It does give us a good place to start though.

Where Did Sweeteners Come From?

As we’ve noted, manufacturer’s use sugar, fat and salt in their products to enhance palatability. So before long, we were finding sugar in food products that we wouldn’t have even realised. That healthy yoghurt after lunch, that loaf of sliced bread and even the condiments on our dinner.

Before long, data was indicating that high consumption of sugar was being associated with obesity, heart disease, liver disease and more.

Many government guidelines were published which indicated we need to reduce our free sugar intake, but when it makes foods taste so sweet, this proves to be more difficult than thought.  The health issues associated with high consumption may also take a number of years to show, so we didn’t have immediate feedback that our dietary choices were causing us problems.  

Sweeteners became a great solution to the problem.  We could still have the sweetness that we craved, but we didn’t suffer the caloric content.

But are they that healthy?

Well, the data is mixed, they possibly aren’t as bad as many articles will have you believe, but they also aren’t the saviour that we so desperately sought either.

A systematic review has recently been carried out, which considers the impact of artificial sweeteners on health. 

Scientists assessed 56 research papers, making this the most comprehensive review of the matter to date.

The studies that they analysed included adult and child participants, and they compared low and no intake of non-sugar sweeteners against higher intakes.  The scientists investigated a range of parameters, including oral health, kidney and cardiovascular disease, cancer, blood sugar levels, behaviour, mood, and, importantly, weight and body mass index, also known as BMI.  

What was particularly interesting is that for most health outcomes, there seemed to be no significant differences between people who consumed non-sugar sweeteners and those who did not.

In some smaller studies, they found weak evidence that the use of non-sugar sweeteners helped reduce BMI and blood sugar levels, but it was not compelling. In other words, the data may or may not be transferrable to the general population.  (i)

However

There is increasing data that indicates the role of artificial sweeteners in disrupting the ecosystem found in our gut.

Researchers have found that eating artificial sweeteners can affect the microbial community which is vital to our health.  Our gut is not only home to upwards of 70% of our immune system, but it also significantly affects how we feel and behave through a highway known as our gut-brain axis. So unlike Vegas, what goes on in the gut, doesn’t always stay in the gut.  (i)

This information suggests that if we are regularly consuming artificial sweeteners then we could be compromising our gut health, and subsequently everything else it influences. 

Is Sugar Really the Enemy?

There is no denying a link between high sugar consumption and a range of health concerns. But we seem to think of sugar as those white granules we’d add to our cup of coffee and we’re only half correct.  

Fructose is found in man-made products, like table sugar or honey and it’s possibly what we should be paying more attention to.  

Sugar as we know serves as a source of glucose, which is used throughout our body to produce energy.  Glucose is tightly regulated in our body because either high or low levels are problematic.  There are a number of pathways where this occurs, but what is interesting, whilst glucose and fructose are similar in structure, fructose bypasses this regulation. 

This lack of regulation means that some of our metabolic processes go a little awry, and certain compounds build up where they shouldn’t.  

Important note

The important note to make is that fructose intake isn’t sufficiently regulated by our body. As a result, we get cellular dysfunction.  In order words, things go wrong, very wrong. 

Intake of fructose, like in high-fructose corn syrup is linked to increased adipose tissue (obesity), insulin resistance and a range of metabolic conditions.  (i)

In short

Our bodies haven’t yet had time to catch up with the man-made products we put into them.

Glucose is an essential fuel for our bodies; our brains and red blood cells have an absolute need for it.  Our other bodily parts can make it from fat. For example, through a range of pathways, so glucose is not the enemy, it’s just where we get it from.

Carbohydrates are sources of glucose; especially those simple carbohydrates that are broken down and absorbed in the small intestine.  Complex carbohydrates aren’t as available, but they provide important fuel for the microbes in our gut ecosystem.  

The important thing is to eat them in their unprocessed form as much as possible and avoid the more man-made synthetic sugars like fructose.  

So what is the truth about sweeteners?

The jury is still out on whether they are either good for health, or of detriment, there is data on both sides of the argument.  But the data suggesting they are beneficial isn’t particularly compelling.  Furthermore, we can’t ignore the impact they have on our gut ecosystem.  

What we do know is that health and disease are more complex than sugar intake alone.  The type of sugar we eat is more important; if we are eating whole foods with plenty of fruit and vegetables, then we will eat a form of sugar.  This isn’t inherently bad because we also reap the other benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption.  In addition, complex carbohydrates contain fibre which slows glucose absorption in digestion. 

If we are consistently eating processed pastries, fizzy drinks and alike, then this will start to cause us problems; swapping the sugar in your coffee for a sweetener is unlikely to make much difference at this point.  It’s like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.  

Sweeteners are still a research area of interest, so there will likely be more information that becomes available over the next few years, so if your health care provider has suggested you swap to sweeteners, it would be worth keeping an eye on any developments.

If you are currently swapping to sweeteners, based on a healthcare recommendation, ensure you have considered a food-first approach; in short, look at your diet as a whole to see what other changes may be appropriate and if you aren’t sure, seek the advice of a qualified practitioner.