Are Artificial & Non-Nutritive Sweeteners Healthier Than Natural Sugar?

by Lacy Kuester M.S. Candidate, Dietetic InternNutritionSugar packets

The Rise of Sugar Alternatives

Humans are hard-wired to like the taste of sweet things. After all, the ability to seek out and eat sweet fruits and honey allowed our early human ancestors to pack on enough weight to survive leaner winters. But consuming sugar in excess is detrimental to our health, and as you likely know, we are now consuming a whole lot more sugar than those early humans were consuming from fresh berries. In an effort to outsmart our bodies and still get that sweet taste we crave, we’ve developed a number of sweeteners (some artificial, some naturally-derived) that amplify the taste of sweetness in our foods and beverages without actually using sugar. Some of the more popular examples include Sucralose, Saccharin, Aspartame, Stevia, and Monk Fruit.

A few of the products above cannot be digested by our bodies at all, so they pass through our systems without ever being absorbed. Others can be absorbed into our bloodstream, but they cannot be broken down into molecules that we can use for significant amounts of energy (1-3).

The Effects of Artificial and Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

The intention behind alternative sweeteners is good: to satisfy our taste buds while helping us consume less sugar and fewer calories. Unfortunately, research has raised some questions regarding their safety and effectiveness. These sweeteners, though they may not provide any calories, are not metabolically inert. In other words, they still illicit a metabolic response from the body- and that response is not necessarily positive.

Some sweeteners have been proven to alter our gut bacteria, which is critical for our digestion, immune function, and production of neurotransmitters, among other critical biological functions. Others have been shown to impair our natural blood sugar regulation, a precursor for diabetes and even some subtypes of Alzheimer’s. Still others interfere with our natural cues for hunger or satiety, causing a greater intake of calories and weight gain (1-4). Below we summarize some of the major findings from research on the artificial and non-nutritive sweeteners listed above.

Sucralose- found in Splenda (1):

  • Altered the gut microbiome of participants
  • Induced glucose-intolerance in participants

Saccharin- found in Sweet ‘N Low (1, 3):

  • Altered the gut microbiome of participants
  • Induced glucose-intolerance in participants
  • Caused loss of natural satiety cues

Aspartame- found in Equal and some diet sodas (1, 2)

  • Altered the gut microbiome of participants
  • Induced glucose-intolerance in participants
  • Correlated with increased food intake in participants who consumed compared to sugar-sweetened alternative.
  • Caused equivalent glucose and insulin spikes in participants who consumed compared to sugar-sweetened alternative

Stevia- found in Truvia and Stevia in the Raw (1, 2, 3)

  • Correlated with increased food intake in participants who consumed compared to sugar-sweetened alternative.
  • Caused equivalent glucose and insulin spikes in participants who consumed compared to sugar-sweetened alternative
  • Lack of natural satiety cues after consuming the calorie-free sweetener compared to sugar

Monk fruit- found in Monk Fruit in the Raw (1, 2)

  • Correlated with increased food intake in participants who consumed compared to sugar-sweetened alternative.
  • Caused equivalent glucose and insulin spikes in participants who consumed compared to sugar-sweetened alternative

Sugar alcohols- Ingredients ending in -ol such as erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol (4)

  • Altered the gut microbiome of participants
  • Can cause gastrointestinal discomfort

What About Other Natural Sources of Sugar?

Coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, and agave are hailed by some to be “healthy” alternatives to sugar. It may be true that honey has anti-inflammatory properties, that maple syrup contains antioxidants, and that agave has a lower glycemic index (effect on your blood sugar) than sugar, but that does not make these sweeteners healthy. Their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant content is outshined by that of fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs, all of which have a greater abundance of nutrients without the counteracting effects of sugar. The sweeteners with low glucose content (and that therefore have a low glycemic index), such as agave nectar, get their sweetness instead from fructose, a different type of sugar that deposits in your liver as fat. This has been tied to a rise in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (5). Choosing to use an alternative sweetener because it is “healthier than sugar” is somewhat misguided. Don’t be fooled by clever advertising! While these types of sugars may have a place in the diet if used in moderation, all sugar, regardless of the source, should be limited to occasional use to avoid health implications.

Satisfying Your Sweet Tooth

Sugar, whether from natural sources or man-made ones, can be detrimental to our health. But the artificial and non-nutritive sweeteners can wreak absolute havoc on your health by impairing the integrity of your gut and contributing to insulin resistance. On the other side, natural sugars when consumed in excess can contribute to diabetes and liver disease. If you’re fighting cognitive decline, your best bet is to consume your sugar sparingly and through nutrient dense foods. Satisfy your sweet tooth by serving up a portion of dark-colored berries. These are full of phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties without a high-sugar content (6). Another great option is roasted sweet potato topped with a sprinkle of phytonutrient-filled Ceylon cinnamon. While these foods do contain sugar, they are packaged with fiber that slows down your body’s absorption of that sugar, along with huge amounts of oxidation fighting compounds to protect your cells from the detrimental effects of sugar. Even still, portion control is important, and your consumption of these foods will depend on whether you’re aiming to be in mild ketosis. Looking for a sweet beverage option that won’t jeopardize your ketosis? Try adding a small splash of pomegranate juice to sparkling water. The bubbles and fresh pomegranate flavor will perk your taste buds right up!

References:

  1. Suez, J., Korem, T., Zeevi, D., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Thaiss, C.A, Maza, O.… Elinav, E. (2014). Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature, 514, 181–186. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13793
  2. Tey, S., Salleh, N., Henry, J., & Forde, C. (2017). Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia- and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake. International Journal of Obesity, 41(3), 450–457. https://doi.org/10.1038/ ijo.2016.225
  3. Pepino, M. Y. (2015). Metabolic effects of non-nutritive sweeteners. Physiology & Behavior, 152, 450–455. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.06.024
  4. Ruiz-Ojeda, F., Plaza-Díaz, J., Sáez-Lara, M., & Gil, A. (2019). Effects of sweeteners on the gut microbiota: A review of experimental studies and clinical trials. Advances in Nutrition, 10, S31–S48. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmy037
  5. Hellerstein, M. (2012). Mitigating factors and metabolic mechanisms in fructose-induced nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: the next challenge. American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 96(5), 951–952. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.049650
  6. Gupta, C., & Prakash, D. (2014). Phytonutrients as therapeutic agents. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 11(3), 151–169. https://doi.org/10.1515/ jcim-2013-0021