Artificial Sugars – Are They “Bad” for You?

by | Oct 25, 2021

What are artificial sugars?

Artificial sugars are man made sugars used as a substitute for sugar/sucrose that usually contain less calories. These artificial sweeteners can also be identified as sugar substitutes, zero calorie sweeteners, or sugar alcohols.

Products that contain these sugars will sometimes label themselves as “sugar-free” , “no added sugar”, “dietetic”, or as seen more commonly in the past few years, “keto-friendly”. They are developed using plant extracts or by the chemical process of hydrogenation of sugars using nickel. And, they are minimally absorbed by the body, lending to their zero-calorie appeal. The concept of having low-calorie sugar is great if someone is diabetic or has a weight loss goal. However, the risks of using these substitutes has been widely debated for decades, making it hard to know what to believe and what is safe.

Common types of artificial sugars

Sugar Substitutes

  • Aspartame: Commonly known as “Equal”, composed of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, 200x sweeter than your average table sugar
  • Sucralose: Commonly known as “Splenda”, chemically manufactured from sugar and 600x sweeter than sugar. Majority of sucralose is not absorbed by the body.
  • Saccharin: Also known as “Sweet N’ Low”, this was linked to carcinogenic effects in 1977 but was never confirmed. Thus, it remains available today in the United States although it is banned in Canada.
  • Neotame: Also known as “Nutrasweet” and is 8,000x sweeter than sucrose
  • Stevia: Sweetener extracted from plants, often mixed with other sweeteners

Sugar Alcohol

  • Mannitol: A sugar alcohol derived from fruits and vegetables, this has a tendency to cause GI discomfort.
  • Sorbitol: A sugar alcohol also derived from fruits and vegetables, this does not usually have as much GI irritation as mannitol.
  • Erythritol: Naturally occurring sugar alcohol derived from fermentation of fruit, fungi, wine, and soy sauce

Artificial Sugars: Myths vs. Facts

Artificial sweeteners can make me gain weight.

There are a couple of reasons why artificial sugars are thought to actually promote weight gain rather than provide less calories and promote weight loss. The brain is wired to react to sweetened foods with a metabolic reaction. When sweet foods are consumed but there are no attached calories, it is assumed that the brain could stop doing this metabolic reaction and not digest actual sugars with attached calories appropriately.

The brain will also turn off sweet cravings when presented with sugar, but this mechanism doesn’t work as efficiently if presented with artificial sugar. Instead, the cravings are unsatisfied and can encourage a higher intake of calories.

Artificial sweeteners can give me cancer.

No evidence links artificial sweeteners to cancer. If we look back on how artificial sugars are proposed to encourage weight gain, then an argument could be made for artificial sugars to increase the risk of obesity-linked cancers, but it is reaching.

Artificial sweeteners raise my blood sugar more than regular sugar.

This has some validity to it, but only sugar alcohols are linked to a rise in blood sugar. That means the sugar-free packets you add to your iced tea will be fine. But, if you’re concerned about blood sugar levels, avoid the use of mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol, and xylitol.

 Many studies done around this subject have been animal studies being fed well above an average dose of artificial sugars and always need to be analyzed with that in mind*

This is a lot of information and everyone will have different reactions to different foods. If moderation of foods is at the forefront of eating, then we can minimize some negative effects that are associated with sugar substitutes. If you need help navigating sugar substitutes in your diet, or think they may be causing adverse reactions, contact us at AZ Dietitians for help from one of our Registered Dietitians.

Adapted from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Indian Journal of Pharmacology, Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapeutics

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