They’re in diet fizzy drinks and ‘low-fat’ foods, but are sweeteners a healthier alternative to sugar? We ask dietician Dr Sarah Schenker for the facts.
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that offer the same sweetness as sugar, minus the calories. You’ll find them in a whole range of different foods from diet drinks and confectionery to sauces and yogurts – even your toothpaste!
But with technical names such as ‘acesulfame K’ and ‘xylitol’, it’s not always easy to spot them. There’s also a lot of debate surrounding how good they are for us. To help you get clued up on sweeteners, we ask Dr Sarah Schenker the biggest questions…
What are sweeteners?
“Low and no-calorie sweeteners can give foods and drinks a sweet taste, but with fewer calories than sugar. They’re made from either artificial chemicals or natural extracts from plants.”
Which artificial sweeteners are the most common?
“Saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame K and aspartame are intensely sweet in tiny doses. You’ll find them on the ingredients lists for low-calorie soft drinks and sugar-free gum. Others such as sorbitol and xylitol are similar in substance to real sugar – they’re natural sugars made from sugar alcohol. They’re used to replace sugar in products such as baked goods and confectionery.”
Can they have a harmful effect?
“Artificial sweeteners are closely regulated and they must have passed all the necessary safety checks by the European Food Safety Authority to be used in our food. More recently, studies by Cancer Research UK have found that they do not increase the risk of diseases such as cancer or cause adverse side effects such as infertility.”
Are natural sweeteners better for us?
“Unlike artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners contain calories and therefore energy but they aren’t necessarily nutritionally better for us. Maple syrup, coconut sugar or honey provide sweetness, minus the chemicals. Stevia is also a natural low-calorie sweetener that we often add to our tea. At 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, you need to eat far less of it to get your sweet fix.”
Do artificial sweeteners help with weight loss?
“Many people choose artificial sweeteners to help manage their weight, however the evidence for their effectiveness is inconclusive. Some studies suggest that regular consumption of artificially sweetened soft drinks reduces your intake of calories and could promote weight loss. Other research shows no effect, and one study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition even suggests that they may cause weight gain.
“Artificial sweeteners can make us feel hungrier, according to further research by the University of Sydney. This is because they disrupt the body’s ability to gauge how many calories we’re consuming. Our brains respond to sweetness and send a signal when we are satisfied. By providing a sweet taste without any calorie satisfaction, artificial sweeteners might cause us to crave more sweet foods and drinks, which add up to excess calories.
Can artificial sweeteners help diabetics?
“Artificial sweeteners are often recommended for people with diabetes as a way of reducing sugar intake and helping to control blood glucose levels. However, a groundbreaking study by the Centre for Research in Population Health in France showed that both sugar-sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened drinks were linked with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“The research found that artificial sweeteners can cause glucose intolerance (raising our blood glucose beyond normal levels), possibly due to a shift in the balance of our gut bacteria. Sweeteners pass through the gastrointestinal tract undigested where they come into direct contact with our gut flora and upset the natural balance – instead encouraging specific bacteria linked to obesity to flourish. However, we need more research to provide conclusive results.”
So, are artificial sweeteners worth it?
“Nutrition experts are often divided when it comes to the use of artificial sweeteners. For adults trying to wean themselves from sugary drinks, diet versions could be useful. They’re best used in small amounts over a short period of time, with the ultimate aim of reducing intake altogether. To prevent a life-long habit of craving intensely sweet food, it might be best for children to avoid them from the start.
“When it comes to your diet, balance is key. This is especially important for sweetened food, whether naturally or artificially.”
Interested in the sweet stuff? Find out what sugar does to the body in our expert Q&A.