Are Artificial Sweeteners a Healthy Choice?

Artificial sweeteners are a popular choice for those looking to reduce their sugar intake and calorie consumption. We asked an expert to break it down. This article delves into the question: “Are artificial sweeteners a healthy choice?” by examining both the myths and facts surrounding these sugar substitutes.

How cool to drink a can of Coke and not put on any weight! Or eat your favourite ice cream and not gain much weight…too good to be true some say. Yes, it’s exactly that. Artificial sweeteners are sweeter than sugar, yet contain no calories (or nutrition); one of the main reasons most obese and diabetic patients rely on them.

As technology develops, every aspect of our lives is impacted, including many human-made foods. We tend to associate artificial sweeteners and flavours with canned drinks and diabetic-friendly foods, which is a rather limiting assumption today. Let’s discuss why so. 

Given how accessible, well priced and ‘tasty’ artificial sweeteners and flavours make our food, the industry doesn’t shy away from using them in foods we eat every day, like yoghurt, dry fruits, canned foods, candy (yes, your kids may be eating it without you realising), and even bread!

These foods don’t fall into the calorie-conscious or diabetic-friendly category, which is what scares me the most. Being unaware of what I am ingesting, and how it impacts my body, may not sound like a big deal, but with some yoghurts or breads, and diet soda your body will start sending you signals (which we highlight later).

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

They can be referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) since they provide no, or very few, calories and no nutrients. They were invented in 1886 to sweeten food without increasing the caloric value. And, while this objective was fulfilled, we didn’t have the know-how, or intuition, to consider other possible impacts on our bodies. With modern-day tools to support research, we now know artificial sweeteners are not as innocent as we thought.

It’s common practice for food manufacturers to fund research enabling them to find ingredients that make their food addictive- because who doesn’t want to make more money?

Foods that didn’t used to be sweet, like pasta sauce, are now artificially sweetened to keep consumers craving the product, with sugar levels that can rival those found in packaged desserts” according to Jennifer Kaplan, instructor of the course Introduction to Food Systems at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena.

Apart from listing many confusing ingredients, most of which are synonyms for sugar, preservatives, artificial sweeteners or flavours, many food companies have discovered smart ways to market themselves. They use buzzwords like “gluten-free”, “natural flavours” (they are actually man-made), “vegan” and “no MSG” in the hope that we don’t read the ingredients list and dig further.

My Journey With Artificial Sweeteners

When I began my wellness journey I’d walk the supermarket isles ensuring to avoid anything with sugar or gluten, thinking my body would thank me later. Cooking has never been my forte, so it was imperative to buy simple, quick and healthy. Leading with that my stables were frozen veg, “skinny” ice creams, pasta sauce, and much more, making me cringe today.

I believed the front cover of a box was honest enough to avoid reading the ingredients. Unaware at the time, everything I bought contained artificial flavours and sweeteners- and I mean, the jokes on me to judge a book by its cover. Long story short, I didn’t feel good- I felt run down, and craved more and more (especially those skinny cow ice creams), without feeling satisfied. It was a sign I had to dig further.

Personally, the trickiest part was to understand the impact of these foods and wake up to the reality that the front cover is not a good synopsis of the real story.

Let me share a little with you, like I wish someone had with me, those many years ago. 

Impact Of Artificial Flavours & Sweeteners On Your Mind & Body:

Impact your brain:

They are 1000 times sweeter than sugar and trigger your brain to think sugar is on the way; similar to Pavolv’s bell response it sends a message to the brain and it starts producing secondary metabolic effects, like increasing insulin. This leads to you getting hungrier- leading to eating more of this food.

Damage your microbiome:

Regular use of artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame, can trigger an abnormal mix of bacteria in the gut. They can sit in your gut and not be absorbed- it is used as ‘food’ for unhealthy bacteria, causing them to grow while killing the healthier ones

Increase in obesity and diabetes:

It triggers our sweet taste sensors that increase insulin levels in the same way as if you eat sugar leading you to overeat as you don’t ever feel satisfied 

Kidney damage:

Artificial sweeteners are very hard for the body to break down and assimilate. Over a period of time, the toxicity build-up due to improper digestion can burden the liver and kidneys 

Headaches and migraines:

Artificial sweeteners and flavours are a rude shock to the body due to their extremely sweet nature, which can lead to instant headaches. It is a sign your body is depleted of energy!

These are just to name a few, the list is far wider and deeper, but I think this provides you with a good overview and enough reason to stop consuming them. 

How Do I Get My Sugar Fix?

First, I think it’s important to fix the crazy cravings, which are usually after lunch or dinner. Take a hard look at your meals- ensure they contain whole, natural, nutrient-dense ingredients. This will nourish the body enough, which will support you to gradually eliminate cravings.

Most sweet cravings are a sign we aren’t receiving enough energy (this could be related to aspects of life beyond food, such as sleep!). I will accept that it is nice to enjoy some form of dessert once in a while and we are lucky to have many natural options.

A few of my favourites are jaggery, monk fruit, natural honey and maple syrup. BUT, it’s important to ensure these products are legit, not meddled with, and consumed in moderation! 

If you’d like some vendors who offer these options feel free to reach out to me, and I’ll be happy to share their details. 

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