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Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Alternatives

Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Alternatives

Alternative sweeteners have become more and more popular, especially in the bariatric community. One alternative many people turn to is artificial sweeteners, which are chemically produced sweeteners designed to mimic sugar's taste.

But are they really a healthier alternative, and how do they compare to other sugar substitutes on the market? Let's take a closer look at the world of artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes.

What are Sugar Substitutes?

Sugar substitutes are a type of chemical or plant-based substance used to enhance the flavor of foods and drinks without adding calories or sugar to the label. They are regulated by the FDA and come in different types.

While they can be useful for people who want to control their calorie intake, it's important not to rely on them entirely and instead focus on healthy food choices like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats.

Types of Sugar Substitutes

There are different types of sugar substitutes, including artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners and sugar alcohols. 

Artificial sweeteners, such as Sweet ‘n Low, Equal, Splenda and NutraSweet (aspartame, saccharine, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame-K), are made in a lab to be 400-600 times sweeter than sugar that have little to no calories.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener commonly used as a sugar substitute in diet sodas and low-calorie foods. However, recent studies suggest that it may have negative health effects, including potential weight gain and an increased appetite. Aspartame has also been linked to certain medical conditions, although the FDA and other agencies have approved its use for most people. 

Natural sweeteners, such as Stevia and Monk Fruit, come from plant sources and have little to no calories.

Sugar alcohols, like xylitol and sorbitol, are processed from sugars and have fewer calories than sugar. They are often used in chewing gum and hard candies, but can cause gastrointestinal issues in some people. 

This is why we recommend limiting sugar alcohols to 15 grams per day or less. Some examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol. It's important to note that sugar alcohols must be listed on nutrition labels.

What about all natural sweeteners and sugars?

For some, natural sweeteners can be a great way to reduce processed or refined sugars. Some all natural sweeteners include agave, maple syrup, and honey.

However, it's important to remember that natural sweeteners still count as added sugars and should be avoided after bariatric surgery.

Health Benefits of Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes can give a few health benefits when used in moderation. They provide a sweet taste without adding calories to the diet, making them a great option for people trying to lose weight or lower the sugar in their diet.

Unlike sugar, they do not cause cavities and can be helpful for adding sweetness without compromising your teeth.

Additionally, some sugar substitutes like stevia and monk fruit do not raise blood sugar levels, making them a great option for people with diabetes. 

Limitations of Artificial Sweeteners

While sugar substitutes may seem like a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth without the extra calories, there are some limitations to consider.

Ironically, artificial sweeteners have been linked to potential health risks like weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer. Sweet 'n Low, Equal and Splenda are also now known to trigger a 20% increase in insulin production. This means that they aren't as helpful for people with diabetes and those seeking weight loss as we once thought.

Some studies have also found that Sweet 'n Low (aspartame), Equal and Splenda can impact your gut health, which is directly related to our immune systems and weight. This is why we do recommend using all natural, zero calorie sweeteners like Stevia and Monk Fruit. 

These types of sweeteners are also 500-700 times sweeter than natural sugar, which can contribute to sugar cravings. If you currently struggle with sugar cravings, evaluate how many sugar-free products you have been including in your diet. It might be time to start to reduce these things as well, and slowly adjust to food that isn't quite as sweet.

Additionally, sugar alcohols can cause stomach and intestinal issues in some individuals like bloating, gas, and diarrhea. It's important to keep in mind that while sugar substitutes may offer a lower calorie option, they may not always be the healthiest choice. Especially when consumed in large amounts.

Alternatives To Artificial Sweeteners

There are several alternatives to artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes for those who want to avoid using them altogether. Stevia and Monk Fruit sweeteners are all natural, plant-based sweeteners that are much closer in sweetness to natural sugar. These are great options that are found in the environment.

Another approach is to gradually reduce the amount of sugar and sweeteners in your diet, allowing your taste buds to adjust to enjoying less sweetness overall. 

Take Away

The research on the health effects of low-calorie and artificial sweeteners is a bit shaky. However, they have found some connections to poor gut health, gut issues like gas, bloating and diarrhea, sugar cravings, increased appetite, weight gain and potentially cancer. 

While sugar substitutes are safe to use in small amounts, it's important to not use them in excess. This is why we recommend using all natural sweeteners like Stevia and Monk Fruit sweeteners. They are found in the environment and are very similar in sweetness to natural sugar. Additionally, they do not raise blood sugar levels.

The moral of the story is to consume everything in moderation, but if you have the option, try to select products sweetened with Stevia or Monk Fruit. Ultimately, the choice is yours.

Katie Ott, MS, RD

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