Should You Avoid Artificial Sweeteners?
Working at a supplement store, you get the opportunity to hear a lot of opinions on health. Well more specifically on ‘what is bad for you’ and ‘what is good for you’. One of the most common of those relate to artificial (alternative) sweeteners.
“They’re bad for your health”, “they cause cancer”, “they’re worse for you than actual sugar”, “they raise your insulin, so you don’t burn any fat”, “they're bad for your immune system and digestion”, and my favourite “they're all made in China”.
I'm not exactly sure what the country of manufacture has to do with it, but apparently things made in China are bad for you.
So let's see what the science says and figure out if any of these concerns are justified.
Let's look at some of the main artificial, non-nutritive sweeteners
Firstly, let’s look at some common artificial, non-nutritive sweeteners, meaning that they do not provide added calories.
Is used primarily in soft drinks, rapidly excreted in urine and does not accumulate in the body. Excessive amounts are not linked to cancer.
is a general purpose sweetener, made from two amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine (and a methyl group), therefore digested as aminos. For the same reason, it is not suitable for those with PKU, and excessive intake should be avoided by those with epilepsy. But studies show it does not cause an insulin spike on its own!
Is an organic salt which passes through the body unchanged.
Is made from sugar in a way that it avoids being digested and passes through the gastrointestinal tract unabsorbed. Therefore studies show it also does not cause an insulin spike.
A systemic review looked at 18 different studies examining the association between artificially sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain, it was concluded that there is no significant clinical evidence for causality regarding artificial sweetener use and metabolic health effects.
Furthermore, addressing the connections to cancer risk: research shows there is no association between consumption of artificial sweeteners and development of cancer in digestive and reproductive systems, kidney, bladder or liver of humans.
Let's look at some of the main artificial, nutritive sweeteners
Now, here are some common nutritive sweeteners, also called sugar alcohols. These do provide some calories and are absorbed slowly and metabolised differently in the body. Therefore they may have some side-effects, mainly gastrointestinal discomfort:
Is commonly found in lollies,and chewing gum.
This is a bulking agent, also commonly found in chewing gum.
This is included in special dietary foods, lollies and again chewing gum.
This is present in some pharmaceutical and oral health products, as well as chewing gum and lollies.
The side-effects of these depend on the dosage and the person. While some can consume larger doses of any of the above sugar alcohols and have zero discomfort, research shows some can have a smaller dose with more intense side effects including: diarrhoea, flatulence and bloating.
So should we be avoiding artificial sweeteners?
If you’re prone to gastrointestinal discomfort, you should minimise your intake especially of sugar alcohols.
Certain protein bars, for example, may claim to be low sugar or sugar-free, but will have alcohol sugars which contribute to the total calorie of the bar.
So if you’re following flexible dieting and tracking your macros, you will notice a disparity between total calories and the macros! The extra calories are from the alcohol, so be careful when tracking these in your apps. Other sweeteners pose no other health risks.
The most common sweetener in protein, BCAAs, and pre-workout powders is Sucralose. Most of this sweetener is excreted as waste, while around 15 per cent is absorbed into the bloodstream, then removed from the blood by the kidneys and excreted through urine.
The acceptable daily intake is 5mg/kg of body weight per day, but the estimated daily intake of a typical person is around 1.6mg/kg per day.
So, when looking at sports supplements and trying to determine whether to buy a naturally sweetened product, an artificially sweetened product or a completely unsweetened (raw) product, there is no health related difference between them! So, you should choose whatever flavour/brand you prefer.