No matter how much we love our sweet treats, we know they aren’t good for us. Chocolate, candy, cake – all our most beloved guilty pleasures lead to weight gain and a whole host of other problems if we overindulge. So, we start to look for alternatives to satisfy our sweet tooth, but are artificial sweeteners actually a better alternative to sugar? We asked Dr. Nancy about the most popular sweeteners so you can learn whether they’re actually better for you, and which you should choose.
What are the different types of sweetener?
There are a huge number of different sweeteners on the market, but some of the most popular are:
- Splenda – this brand of sweetener contains sucralose, which is made from sugar through chemical process. While sucralose is calorie free, Splenda still contains glucose and maltodextrin, so it has around 3.36 calories per gram. Splenda is not a natural sweetener.
- Equal – Equal is a brand of sweetener that contains dextrose with maltodextrin, aspartame, and acesulfame. Equal is not a natural sweetener.
- Sweet’N Low – this brand is made from saccharin in the US. Sweet’N Low is not a natural sweetener.
- Stevia – Stevia is a natural sweetener, which is made from the leaves of a plant that is native to South America and Asia.
- Monk fruit sugar – a monk fruit is a fruit that looks a little like a black or brown apple, and is cultivated because it contains mogrosides which are 250 times sweeter than sugar. Monk fruit is a natural sweetener. It’s important to note that the sweetness does not come from fructose but the mogrosides, so you need very little to get the sweetness you’re looking for.
- Honey – honey, while made by bees, is still sugar. The only real difference is that it has a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar, so insulin levels don’t spike quite as quickly.
- Agave syrup – like honey, agave is a natural sweetener which contains the same amount of sugar as refined sugar. In most cases, it actually spikes blood sugar levels more quickly, because it is made from fructose.
- Aspartame – Aspartame is an artificial sweetener often found in sodas, as well as brands like Equal and NutraSweet. Another sweetener called neotame (or Newtame) is also based on Aspartame.
- Acesulfame – this is another artificial sweetener that is calorie free, used by brands such as Sunett and Sweet One.
Are artificial sweeteners better for you than sugar?
Usually – it depends on the sweetener and on your body. Dr. Nancy said, “A lot of people have sensitivities to artificial sweeteners, and they shouldn’t use them.” For everyone else, the answer really is it depends. The best-case scenario is to never use sweeteners, but if you need to, make use you research what sweetener the brand you choose uses. Natural sweeteners (such as stevia and monk fruit) are generally okay, while sucralose and saccharin are known to have some health risks.
What’s a good alternative to sugar?
“Monk fruit is a really good one, or Stevia, because they’re natural,” Dr. Nancy said. If you’re trying to avoid processed foods, adding honey or agave syrup to your recipes can be a good move, but you need to be aware that it is still sugar. You’re simply switching one for another, so they should always be eaten in moderation.
What should I use if I’m sensitive to artificial sweeteners?
“Use a natural sweetener, like fruit. Adding berries can help improve the taste without adding anything artificial,” Dr. Nancy said. Berries such as raspberries and strawberries actually contain little sugar, despite their sweet taste.
Is fructose better for you than sugar?
Fructose can be misleading on nutritional labels, because it is sugar that has come from a fruit. While this initially sounds like it will be better for you, because it’s from fruit, it can actually be worse. “They are both equally bad,” Dr. Nancy said. “As a matter of fact, fructose is worse for people who have metabolic syndrome than table sugar. Fructose is also worse for those with fatty liver disease.”
Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?
While you certainly can’t say that all artificial sweeteners pose a health risk, it is worth noting that, just like pure sugar, there has been research that links artificial sweeteners to an increase in the likelihood of developing malignant cancers. One recent study found that as they increased the amount of sucralose they fed mice, the rate of cancers increased too, particularly at a rate of over 2000ppm a day, which is just 2ml. The Center for Science in the Public Interest downgraded the safety rating for sucralose to “avoid” from “caution.”
Sucralose isn’t the only sweetener to have been linked, saccharin has been linked to bladder cancer, as well as other health risks. Aspartame was long thought to be risky, and while the American Cancer Society does not deem it a carcinogen (causes cancer) and the FDA says it’s safe, it’s best to use it in moderation.
Which sweetener should I choose?
Sweeteners can be used safely, but you shouldn’t ever rely on them. If you add them to the occasional recipe, using one based on a natural sweetener (such as Stevia), won’t do you much harm. However, brands that use sucralose or saccharin should be avoided so you don’t spike your insulin levels, which causes the cells to convert glucose into fat. If your sweet tooth comes calling, why not opt for one of our chocolate protein shakes as a healthy alternative?
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.