Sugar substitutes are often a go-to for people looking to
cut calories and carbohydrates in their diets to be ‘healthier.’ However, they
have often been wrought with controversy on their safety. Sugar substitutes
have been deemed safe by the FDA and many research studies have been conducted
to prove their safety; however safe does not necessarily equal healthy.
Many people use sugar subsittues because they still want a
sweet taste but do not want the calories and sugar that comes from table sugar
or other sweeteners such as maple syrup or honey. Often it is thought that
fewer calories and less sugar would translate to lost pounds, avoidance of
weight gain, or even a reduced risk for health problems but new research is
revealing that may not be the case!
We all know that added sugars are
not good for our health are not good for your health. Research has proven that too much sugar in the diet adds empty calories
which leads to weight gain, increases risk for disease, and adds no nutritional
value to the diet whatsoever. Added sugars are abundant in regular sodas,
candies, and sweets but also are hidden in many food items such as yogurt,
salad dressings, condiments, and bread.
Products with non-nutritive sweeteners are an alternative
that many individuals and the food industry use to cut back on added sugars.
Artificial sweeteners are widely popular with about 40% of Americans consuming them. These sweeteners are also hidden in a lot of foods, even ones that are not
labeled light or diet. Sucralose, or
Splenda, is the most popular sugar substitute and is part of a $3 billion
industry. It is 400-700 times sweeter than table sugar. Other substitutes,
including saccharin and aspartame, are also commonly used and can be hundreds
to thousands of time sweeter than table sugar. Published studies find mixed results on how these artificial sweeteners impact
our health and bodies.
When looking at research studies examining the effect of artificial
sweeteners on our health there are a lot of things to consider…
Who was the study funded by?
Were the subjects of the study in a controlled
Was it an animal study that would not
necessarily translate to humans?
How big was the sample size?
Was the length of the study long enough to
Were subjects instructed to make other lifestyle
changes that could have made an impact on the results?
Researchers have determined that research on artificial
sweeteners overall has been poor quality and that more research is needed but
some important trends are being discovered which should concern anyone that
frequently consumes sugar substitutes.
The goal of losing weight with the use of sugar substitutes may be counter-intuitive. Newer studies are highlighting this fallacy. Just because something is
zero-calorie does not mean that it will lead to weight loss. For example, one study from 2015 revealed that a higher intake of diet soda was associated with increased
abdominal obesity compared to those that drank less or no diet soda at all.
Another long-term study of more than 750 people over 65 years’ old who used high amounts of low-calorie sweeteners (described as the equivalent of
3 or more diet sodas per day), had more weight gain and increased rates of type
2 diabetes and heart disease. Some
studies have found that sugar substitutes are associated with a greater risk of
type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, increased blood pressure, and heart
disease. It is unclear if the increased risk is related to the artificial
sugars or if it due to the lifestyles and/or body composition of those reaching
for diet soda and other foods sweetened with zero-calorie, sugar-free
There are many hypothesis to why artificial sweeteners in
our foods may be associated with increased weight and health issues. When choosing to drink a diet soda, do people justify eating more food or do
they allow themselves to splurge on less nutritious foods? Does the magnified
sweetness of artificially sweetened foods increase our desire for sweet foods?
Do sugar substitutes alter our taste perception? Or do sugar substitutes
disrupt our ability to estimate the number of calories we consume? It is hard
to say what exactly is at play but with nearly 40% of American adults battling
obesity eliminating products with these sweeteners may be a good strategy to
improve our health.
Common beliefs about sugar substitutes include that they are
“free” and are processed in the body just as water would be. But new research
from the University of Illinois and another featured in Cell Metabolism is
turning this belief upside down.
In the study from the University of Illinois,
researcher Y. Papino had 17 obese
individuals drink a calorie-free beverage sweetened with sucralose (often sold
as the brand-name Splenda) and then monitored how their bodies reacted to an
oral glucose tolerance test. The researchers then repeated the procedure with
plain water. Since many people believe that drinking a beverage with sweeteners
is the same as drinking plain water, the thought process would lead you to
believe that the results would be the same. However, the researchers found that
the participants who received the beverage with sucralose were more insulin
resistant than those who drank plain water.
The researcher followed up with additional experiments to
determine if the sweet receptors in our digestive tract may stimulate change in
blood glucose levels. In a recent experiment they asked participants to spit
out the sucralose-sweetened drink to determine if just having the sweet taste
would trigger a different response on the glucose test. In this experiment,
insulin levels didn’t rise as much as when the drink was swallowed but levels
still did rise. Even though the research sample size was small the results
prove that more research is needed and caution should be taken with the use of
Another new study released in 2020 in Cell Metabolism hat received a lot of attention in the press also found that the use of
sucralose (Splenda) may cause changes in our body's blood sugar response. In this
study researchers broke participants into 3 groups. The first group received a
drink sweetened with table sugar, the second group received a drink sweetened
with the equivalent of 2 packets of Splenda, and the last group had a drink
with a mix of sucralose and maltodextrin (a simple sugar). After 7 weeks the
individuals who were given the drink sweetened with artificial sweeteners and
simple sugars became glucose intolerant with higher blood glucose and an
increased risk for diabetes. The researchers found that the individuals
receiving the other 2 beverages had a normal metabolic response and did not
show an increased risk for disease.
Again, more research is needed on both of these topics
regarding sugar substitutes but the results bring about more questions about
the impact these sweeteners have on our overall health. Does simply tasting
something sweet impact our body’s metabolism? Does mixing carbohydrates with
sugar substitutes confuse our body’s response and decrease our ability to
metabolize sugar making us more insulin resistant?
Many researchers are starting to believe that when our body
detects something sweet (and remember artificial-sweetened foods are
significantly sweeter than natural sweeteners) the body thinks it’s about to
metabolize sugar and releases insulin. When this process happens and there is
no glucose or sugar for our body to metabolize (as in when we consume
non-nutritive sweeteners), the body may adapt over time leading to an increase
in insulin resistance.
Health authorities suggest that sugar substitutes are safe
to eat even though there are some studies suggesting concerns. Many of these
organizations seem to have changed their tune when discussing artificial
sweeteners of late. For instance, the American Diabetes Association states on their website regarding artificial sweeteners: “At this time there is
no clear evidence that using sugar substitutes help with blood sugar, weight,
or cardiometabolic health in the long run." A welcome change from the past when health organizations would recommend
individuals drink beverages with artificial sweeteners to improve their health.
At Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating we are proud that our
meals have been free of sugar substitutes and any artificial ingredients since
we began in 1985. We believe in the natural sweetness of fruits but also in not
depriving yourself of a treat now and then. We also think that eating something
that is over 400 times as sweet as table sugar may only increase our sweet
tooth which is counterintuitive to our goal to improving the health of our
customers. We are interested to see what the continued research on sugar
substitutes reveals but commit to our original mission to be free of sugar
substitutes in all of our meals.