The Bitter Truth: “Neither sugar nor zero-calorie sweeteners provide any form of positive health effects,” Davidson says. “Honestly, the ultimate way to lose weight and improve your health is to avoid both of them.”
“The bottom line is that even small amounts of artificial sweeteners can play tricks on your body, causing it to overrespond to signals from your taste buds, in many cases leading to weight gain,” Cederquist says.
To know more then carry on ready:
It’s no secret — large quantities of sugar can harm the body in many ways, from causing inflammation to increasing the chance of developing obesity and coronary heart disease, which is why the American Heart Association recommends that the average American (AHA) limit their intake of added sugar to 5 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. But the artificial stuff isn’t necessarily better for you.
For starters, many of the sugar substitutes found in diet foods and beverages are jam-packed with chemicals, which can put a strain on your immune system. “When we ingest these chemicals, our bodies need to work extra hard to metabolize them, leaving less resources to detoxify our bodies from the many chemicals we get exposed to in the environment,” says Dr. Jeffrey Morrison, physician and nutrition adviser for Equinox. Many of the sweeteners now only turn to glucose or give this feelings as they hit the stomach acids sending mixed signals from your tongue and senses too your stomach and blood sugar levels.
Artificial Highs: Are Zero-Calorie Sweeteners Any Better?
“Whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe depends on your definition of ‘safe,’” Nessel says. “Studies leading to FDA approval of these sweeteners have ruled out cancer risk for the most part. However, those studies were done using far smaller amounts of diet soda than many people drink. We really don’t know what effect large amounts of these chemicals will have over many years.”
That’s probably not the shining endorsement you were hoping for. And while sugar-free sweeteners are pretty much the only let’s-make-this-coffee-sweeter option available to people with pre-diabetes or diabetes (Nessels recommends diabetics cap their intake at one or two servings daily), if you’ve got healthy blood-sugar levels, you might want to steer clear of them entirely. “I would recommend sugar in moderation over artificial sweeteners,” says Caroline Cederquist, M.D., creator of bistroMD and author of The MD Factor Diet.
In one Journal of Behavioral Neuroscience study, rats that consumed the popular artificial sweetener saccharine for 14 days ate more food and gained more weight than rats that ate sugar. Plus, their core body temperatures actually dropped and their metabolisms slowed. That may be because artificial sweeteners are up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, which can not only trigger your body to crave more of the sweet stuff but also damage your body’s ability to gauge how many calories you’ve consumed—and how many more you should crave, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Current research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine shows that people who consume two or more diet drinks daily are 30 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes, and are 50 percent more likely to die from heart disease compared to those who rarely who never or rarely drink diet drinks.
Sugar or substitute?
Sugar contributes to tooth decay and obesity, but still we spoon it onto cereal and into coffee (and the food industry puts heaps—known as added sugar—into products).
“Americans eat 165 pounds of added sugar each year, and sugar substitutes are on the rise as well, which are hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Feed the Belly and co-author of The Carb Lovers Diet.
But are artificial sweeteners, honey, agave nectar, or high-fructose corn syrup healthier than table sugar?
To help you decide, here’s the real deal on 10 common sweeteners and useful information.
AKA: Table sugar Calories: 16 per teaspoon Found: Naturally in fruit; added to baked goods, jams, marinades, salad dressingsThe deal: Sucrose offers energy but no nutritional benefits. In 2003, a team of international experts recommended that added sugars make up no more than 10% of your diet, or about 12 teaspoons (50 grams) for a 2,000-calorie diet.
But in 2009 the American Heart Association slashed that even further suggested women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar and men no more than 9 (37.5 grams).
AKA: Sunett, Sweet One Calories: 0 Found in: Soft drinks, gelatins, chewing gum, frozen dessertsThe deal: This nonnutritive artificial sweetener was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1988, meaning it now has a 22-year track record in which no problems have surfaced.
However, pre-market testing was sparse. Hoescht, the manufacturer of the chemical, ran a few long-term animal studies that showed it might be linked to cancer (although animal studies don’t always translate to humans).
In 1996, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the FDA to require better testing, but for now it seems to be safe in moderation.
Calories: 20 per teaspoon Found in: Cereals, yogurts, teaThe deal: The nectar is a product of the agave cactus, and its taste and texture are similar to honey.
It doesn’t contain as many antioxidants as honey, but it contains approximately the same amount of calories. Agave, however, is sweeter than sugar, so proponents suggest you can use less to get similar sweetness.
It contains more fructose than table sugar, which, according to a recent study, means it is less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar but could be more likely to reduce your metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
High-fructose corn syrup
Calories: 17 per teaspoon Found: Sodas, desserts, cerealsThe deal: This hotly debated sweetener contains the sugars fructose and glucose from processed corn syrup.
Because it’s cheaper than sucrose and gives products a longer shelf life, more packaged foods in the U.S.—especially soda, cereal, and yogurt—contain HFCS as added sugar instead of sucrose.
Some studies say beverages sweetened with HFCS contribute to obesity more than sucrose, but others show it’s no worse for health. It’s best to limit your consumption.
Calories: 21 per teaspoon Found in: Cereals, baked goods, teasThe deal: Honey contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, and studies suggest it may not raise blood sugar as fast as other sweet products.
(It’s generally better for the body to have a slow and steady rise in blood sugar after eating, rather than a dramatic spike.)
Honey, however, does contain calories and should be used as sparingly as any other full-calorie sweetener.
Calories: 0 Found in: Some drinks, dairy products, frozen desserts, puddings, fruit juicesThe deal: The newest on the market, this artificial sweetener was approved by the FDA in 2002.
It is between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar depending on what it is added to, and is produced by the same company that makes aspartame.
Neotame is one of the only nonnutritive sweeteners to get the seal of approval from the CSPI, but it is rarely used in everyday products.
Stevia leaf extract
AKA: Truvia, Pure Via Calories: 0 Found in: Diet drinks, yogurts, individual packetsThe deal: Derived from the stevia plant, stevia leaf extract, also called rebiana, is deemed the natural alternative to artificial sweeteners.
Although crude stevia extracts are not approved by the FDA, refined stevia products such as Truvia gained a Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) approval from the FDA in 2008.
In 2013, the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest said it “considers rebiana, a natural high-potency sweetener obtained from stevia, to be “safe,” though deserving of better testing.”
AKA: Sweet’N Low Calories: 0 Found in: Drinks, canned goods, candyThe deal: Rat studies in the early 1970s found a link between consuming Saccharin and bladder cancer, prompting Congress to mandate in 1981 that all foods containing it bear a warning label.
Later studies showed that these results may only occur in rats, and there was a lack of evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans. Saccharin was removed from the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens in 2000 and Congress repealed the warning label.
The CSPI places it on their “avoid” list, acknowledging that Congress’s removal of the label will likely result in greater use of the sweetener.
AKA: Splenda Calories (per 1 teaspoon): 0 Found in: Fruit drinks, canned fruit, syrupsThe deal: Sucralose received FDA approval in 1998, and although one study showed it may negatively impact the immune system, follow-up studies did not find a correlation.
The CSPI deems it safe, and several studies have found that it is not carcinogenic. This sweetener is one of the few not sensitive to heat and can therefore be used in baking, useful for those limiting empty-calorie carbohydrates because they are dieting or have diabetes.
AKA: Sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol Calories: 10 per teaspoon Found in: Sugar-free candies, gum, dessertsThe deal: Sugar alcohols aren’t nonnutritive sweeteners—they have 2.6 calories per gram—but they don’t cause tooth decay like table sugar.
Although they’re generally less sweet and caloric than sugar, eating large amounts (particularly of mannitol) can cause bloating and diarrhea. They’re often used in sugar-free foods marketed to diabetics, because they contain fewer carbohydrates than table sugar. They do contain some carbohydrates, so eating them in excess may increase blood sugar.
The ADA recommends consuming sugar alcohols in moderation, and counting half of the grams of sugar alcohols as carbohydrates because only about half get digested.