“Sugar pie honey bunch, you know that I love you,” is how the song “Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops begins. The singers were talking about their sweetie – a person – but many of us with a sweet tooth have a similar love for sugary treats. In recent years, sweets have become “less sugary” with the help of artificial sweeteners, but is this actually better for your health?
Artificial sweeteners – aspartame, sucralose, stevia, and others – are commonly used in diet sodas, processed treats, candies, cookies, coffee drinks, and more. Anything labeled “diet” or “low sugar” has typically swapped regular sugar for an artificial sweetener. Though this might make the nutrition label seem healthier (less grams of sugar, less calories, etc.), artificial sugar has been consistently connected to poor health outcomes.
The most significant health issues tied to artificial sweeteners have to do with weight, blood sugar, and cardiovascular health. For starters, many public health officials have linked the obesity epidemic in the US with the popularity of diet colas. Unfortunately, the use of the word “diet” in the name of these sodas is a misnomer: artificial sugars have actually been connected to weight gain, rather than weight loss. Moreover, artificial sweeteners impair the body’s metabolism processes to the point that some experts consider them obesogens, or chemicals that enhance fat build-up in the body and contribute to obesity.
Similar to the detriments related to weight, artificial sugars also disrupt blood sugar levels. Two in particular, saccharin and sucralose, peaked blood sugar levels, as compared to other artificial sugars, as discovered in a 2022 study. The consumption of artificial sweeteners is also tied to the rapidly increasing rate of Type 2 Diabetes in the US.
Finally, a recent study in the British Medical Journal outlined the impact of artificial sweeteners on heart health. Regular intake of artificial sweeteners was connected to a 9% increase in risk of cardiovascular disease, and an 18% increase in risk of a stroke. As cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US, it’s imperative that we take the effects of these sweeteners more seriously if we want to see our individual and collective health improve.
So, what can you eat, and what should you avoid? Below we’ve outlined the main artificial sweeteners you’ll find in your food, and which ones you should avoid, which to have in moderation, and which to use!
Aspartame is the most commonly used artificial sweetener, accounting for 60% of artificial sweetener usage in the US. Notably, it has been connected to a marked increase in the risk of stroke, upwards of 15%. Moreover, one review has connected aspartame intake to an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, depression and other mood disorders, and neurodegenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more).
Sucralose is found in Splenda. Similar to aspartame, sucralose consumption runs the risk of diabetes, weight gain, and cardiovascular disease. It has also been linked to the development of IBS and Crohn’s disease; it’s hypothesized that this is due to its negative effects on the gut microbiome. It is also unclear how sucralose may break down if cooked at high temperatures; some believe it generates potentially cancerous compounds when heated.
Again, saccharin enhances the risk of diabetes, weight gain, and heart disease. Specifically, however, saccharin has also been connected to renal (kidney) impairment, as well as decreased liver function. A 2019 study concluded it was unsafe to include in a human diet.
4. Acesulfame Potassium
Unsurprisingly, regularly consuming acesulfame potassium runs the risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. In particular, it has been connected to negative impacts on the gut microbiome, which is necessary for maintaining a healthy weight and good mental health. Acesulfame potassium is also known as Ace-K or Acesulfame K.
5. High Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is an artificial sugar made from corn syrup. There is mounting evidence that HFCS is contributing to our obesity crisis. Not to mention that HFCS is linked to diabetes, heart disease and other health issues.
Dr. Robert Lustig, a well-known neuroendocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco, is on a crusade to change health policy about the dangers of HCFS. This famous lecture was viewed over 24M times (5X by me…)
1. Regular sugar! In the form of cane sugar, agave, & honey
What should you opt for instead? Regular sugar! High sugar intake is still linked to issues like weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease; however, our bodies have evolved to consume regular glucose from natural sources in small amounts. If you’re looking to sweeten your coffee or tea, stir in a touch of honey or agave. When baking, use regular cane sugar, instead of trying to cut corners with one of the highly processed artificial sugars mentioned above.
Moderation with sugar is the keyword here and keep in mind that adding a few extra calories with regular sugar instead of the “zero calorie” artificial substitute is actually better for your health. In any case, aim to stay below the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 25 grams of sugar per day.
Stevia is considered a natural sweetener, as it’s made from the leaves of certain flowers as opposed to being chemically synthesized. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar – less is more when it comes to Stevia. It was commonly used in South American and Asian countries years before it became popular in the US. You can purchase Stevia in liquid or powder form at the grocery store.
2. Monk Fruit
Monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, is another popular natural sweetener. It comes from the luo han guo plant, and like Stevia, it is 100-200 times sweeter than cane sugar. It has no impact on blood sugar levels, and to date, there aren’t any known negative impacts to health. You can purchase monk fruit at the grocery store or online in liquid, powder, or granule forms to supplement sugar or artificial sweetener use.
Allulose is also naturally sourced, as it’s the sugar found in maple syrup, raisins, figs, and molasses. Unlike Stevia and monk fruit, it’s about 70% as sweet as sugar. It’s low in calories, and has no effect on blood sugar levels. Allulose can be harder to find at the grocery store, so try your local health foods store or Amazon to add it to your pantry.
When in doubt: ditch the artificial sweeteners, have regular sugar in moderation, and replace your artificial sugars with natural options. In any case, aim to have sweet treats – naturally sweetened or not – in moderation, and limit processed foods (even if they use natural sweeteners) when you can. Opting for natural sweeteners and balancing your sugar intake is a fantastic way to improve your health in the short and long term!