It’s well known that eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain and diabetes, so it makes sense that avoiding sugary foods can be beneficial to health.
However, it’s difficult to say goodbye forever to sugary foods like cookies or cake, so it’s understandable that every now and again we may want to enjoy our favourite treat foods.
With so many products now available that state they are sugar-free or ‘no sugar’ are these a better option that their sugar-containing counterparts?
Artificial sweeteners (also known as non-nutritive sweeteners) are synthetic sugar substitutes used in foods and beverage products in place of sugar. Artificial sweeteners are either used as tabletop sweeteners or added to products such as chewing gum, sweets, desserts, and drinks.
Products containing artificial sweeteners are typically labelled sugar-free or ‘no sugar’. However, they still impart a sweet taste as they use sweeteners in place of sugar.
The most common artificial sweeteners used in Australia are as follows:
Other popular sweeteners include nutritive sweeteners. These contain fewer calories compared to sugar and include Fructose, Xylitol and Maltodextin. There are also natural sweeteners like Stevia, which is derived from a plant and contains no energy.
Some of these sweeteners are calorie free, and do not affect blood sugar levels meaning they are popular with those trying to lose weight and manage blood sugar levels.
However, there are concerns that consuming artificial sweeteners can actually lead to weight gain. So far the research on this has been mixed, with one analysis finding a link between sweeteners and a higher BMI, and one analysis finding no link.
It’s worth noting that while some sweeteners do not contain calories, they still reinforce the sweet taste. Sweeteners can be up to 500 times sweeter than table sugar, which puts the sugar receptors on our tongue into overdrive. Consuming sweet foods can trigger cravings for more sweet foods. So consider reducing all sweet tasting foods to help reduce cravings and improve health.
As some artificial sweeteners have no effect on blood sugar levels, they are consumed as an alternative to sugar-containing products that do raise blood sugar levels.
However, a large report published by WHO found that in the long term, replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners is associated with an increased risk of diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners do not contribute to tooth decay or cavities so can lower the risk of dental decay.
There have historically been concerns about the long term safety of artificial sweeteners. One main point of concern has been whether or not artificial sweeteners can cause bladder cancer. Recent and higher-quality research has found that artificial sweeteners are unlikely to increase the risk of cancer in humans.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) regularly reviews the safety evidence for food additives. It then recommends a maximum level of sweeteners, and other additives, that can be used in foods and drinks in Australia.
A recent study looking at 100,000 participants found a link between artificial sweeteners and heart disease. It was found that those who consumed a higher intake of food and beverages with artificial sweeteners had a higher cardiovascular disease risk.
While artificial sweeteners may help with weight management, they aren't a magic bullet and should be used only in moderation.
Food marketed as sugar-free or no sugar isn't calorie-free, so it can still cause weight gain. Also keep in mind that processed foods, which often contain sugar substitutes, generally don't offer the same health benefits as whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
There appears to be no benefit choosing artificial sweeteners over sugar with both products linked to negative health outcomes. Therefore, when deciding what food item to eat, choose either sugar, or any sweetener that you like best and use it sparingly to reduce the impact on your blood glucose levels and weight.
Here is a few tips to reduce the refined sugars in diets:
If you’re looking for a fresh, more mindful approach to weight loss, Rosemary Health can help. We have doctor-guided weight loss programs that consider your lifestyle, goals and your approach to food and wellbeing.