Artificial sweeteners have become popular in the past few decades as a good alternative to sugar. White sugar in general has been demonized for weight gain, and even though this is a false statement, artificial sweeteners have made their way in our every day diet. The main use of these sweeteners are to lower caloric intake and to keep insulin levels low, making them ideal for weight management.
Artificial sweeteners are in most foods around us. All processed foods contain them at some level. Sodas, candy, canned goods, flavoured dairy product and baked goods being the main ones.
The most common questions I hear concerning them is A. Are they safe? and B. Do they trick your body into storing fat?
Yes they areNo they don’t
Read on to know about the sciency reasons behind those answers.
A bit more on artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners can be classified into two categories:
Artificial sweeteners (AS): chemical compounds created by chemistry
Non caloric sweeteners (NCS): natural compounds found in nature with zero caloric value
The main AS out there are:
Acesulfame Potassium: this chemical compound is created by combining acetoacetic acid with potassium. 200 times sweeter than sugar
Sucralose: made by chlorination (adding chlorine atoms) to sucrose. 600 times sweeter than sugar
Aspartame: made by combining phenylalanine, methanol and aspartic acid. 200 times sweeter than sugar
Saccharin: made from the oxidation of o-toluenesulfonamide. 200-700 times sweeter than sugar
Common NCS include:
Stevia: comes from a plant. 250 times sweeter than sugar
Yacoon syrup: comes from a root
Monk fruit: comes from a fruit. 150 times sweeter than sugar
Xylitol: a sugar alcohol derived from plant biomass. 5% less sweet than sugar
Erythritol: a sugar alcohol made by fermenting glucose and yeast
The interesting thing about both AS/NCS is that they go through your body unchanged. Meaning that they are not broken down by your body the same way as other molecules, once they enter your intestines, they are excreted without changing your insulin levels or blood sugar levels.
Understanding how foods are approved by health authorities will help you understand how safe your consumption is.
First of all, chemical compounds like AS aren’t just thrust into production and released to the public. They undergo extensive studies (on animals, usually rats and mice) and then are approved, or not, by the health authorities.
The first thing that is established in the studies is the “No Observable Adverse Effect Level”. This is the lowest threshold of any potential health issues. From there, the “Accepted Daily Intake” is calculated by dividing the NOAEL by an uncertainty factor of 100.
Putting this into context
If a compound’s NOAEL is 10g per kg of body weight per day, it’s ADI is 0.1g per kg of body weight per day.
Typically, foods won’t contain the maximum amount of that compounds ADI in them.
So whenever you see that an artificial sweeteners has been added to your food, the amount is so small that there is basically no health concerns.
For example, the ADI of aspartame is 50mg per kg of body weight per day. For a person weighting 60kg to reach the daily ADI, they would have to drink 24 cans of diet coke (8 ounces cans). That's around 5.5 litres.
I know people can drink a lot of diet coke, but 5.5 litres is a lot and is not a number you would reach unless you and your friends are having a contest to see who can drink the most diet cokes in a day.
NCS and safety
In general, I don't need to sweeten my meals, however, I use Monk fruit out of choice for sweetening some of my favourite breakfast foods (pancakes, greek yogurt).
Although some sweeteners can get a bad rep, including Stevia, i trust the approval of the FDA and it’s safety process.
The fact is that any compounds, artificial or natural, can be toxic if you eat too much of it.
For example, arsenic, which is toxic to humans, is found in fruits, fish and grains. No ones talked about it because you would have to eat a gigantic amount of these foods for the arsenic levels to become dangerous for you.
NCS are safe to use.
Do artificial sweeteners trick your body into storing fat?
The argument here is that AS or NCS trick your brain into thinking it is having sugar, thus making your insulin levels rise.
That makes no sense from a science background.
If that was the case, you would become hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar) every time you had a diet coke.
And like we said earlier, most AS/NCS pass through your body unchanged, with no physiological impact.
There as been a few studies about this but they came back inconclusive. They focus on a small group of people for a short time. As with all nutrition studies, it is hard to get exact data on humans because you need to study a large amount of people for a long time. Which isn’t easily doable.
Artificial sweeteners and weight gain: what you need to know
As soon as we start talking about weight, remember that it’s all a matter of how many calories you eat versus how many calories you use during the day. Yes your macros (carbohydrates, protein and fats) also play a role, but your caloric balance is the most important thing to watch.
AS and NCS have either zero calories or very little calories and for the most part do no influence your insulin levels. Yet many studies find that people who regularly us AS are more at risk of being over weight. Why?
The main culprit, in my opinion is that when something is sweet, you tend to eat more of it. Take plain greek yogurt for example. Eat it by itself and you may be happy with it after eating half a cup. Now add some sweetener in the mix, and you might enjoy a full cup of that greek yogurt because it is now sweeter.
Even though the sweetener in itself is zero calories, it made you double up on calories from greek yogurt.
When it comes to food, it doesn’t matter so much of what you eat, but that you stay within a good caloric balance.
Artificial sweeteners and non caloric sweeteners are a safe way to sweeten your foods.
Approval by the FDA or governing health authorities means that any artificial sweeteners has been extensively studied and that amounts in day to day foods are very, very conservative.
What you should be focusing on is your daily caloric intake. AS and NCS can make food a lot more palatable, making over eating easier. This is where things can get messy. It’s a lot easier to think “Oh what the hell, I’ll have another soda or *insert sweet tasting food*” when that has been sweetened with AS/NCS.
You don’t need to avoid AS/NCS at all cost. You need to watch how much food you eat daily. Keeping you portions in check and focusing on eating balanced meals is more important than whether or not AS are bad for you.
You’ll find that by focusing on eating natural foods you will be eating less AF anyways.