Sugar substitutes are gaining more and more popularity among those who closely monitor their figure and are trying to lose weight. While fitness bloggers advise to forget about sugar forever and introduce its alternatives into the diet, some are still wary of such products and believe that nothing can replace the real sweet taste – at least, without harm to health. We decided to figure out whether sweeteners are really as insidious as many thinks, and what is the difference between their many types.
On the eve of the 20th century, in the midst of the industrial renaissance, the German chemist Konstantin Fahlberg accidentally discovered saccharin, which became the world’s first sugar substitute. Once, a scientist was in such a hurry for a lunch break that he did not wash his hands after working with coal tar. Fahlberg was very surprised when he felt that a piece of bread in his hands acquired a pronounced sweetish taste – and soon developed a unique food substance.
For many decades, the first sweeteners were used only for reasons of economy. During periods of war and crises, they were used exclusively on an industrial scale – and only because sugar became fabulously expensive.
Over time, the trend towards a healthy lifestyle began to conquer the world more and more. In 1983, Coca-Cola released the first version of its carb-free, calorie-free diet soda – with an aspartame-based sweetener. Coca-Cola Light was not the first drink with sweeteners – however, it was that who gained worldwide recognition and popularized the use of these substances.
The statistics on the use of sugar substitutes are constantly growing. In the lead-up to the 21st century, research has shown that 41% of adults and 25% of children in the United States already regularly eaten sugar alternatives.
Initially, the market for sugar substitutes in Asia was not as large as in the West. Certain types of sweeteners could always be found in large stores, but it was believed that they were produced only for the nutrition of diabetics or people with diagnosed obesity.
However, with the popularization of the topic of a healthy lifestyle, this industry has become much more in demand than before. Now fitness bloggers actively urge their subscribers not to give up sweets in order to lose weight and get rid of cellulite.
Indeed, why make your diet more boring and difficult to follow when you can enrich the taste of food and drinks with zero-calorie sweeteners?
A Spoon of Tar
It would seem that science has managed to find the perfect way to protect humanity from excessive consumption of sweets. Almost immediately, ever since the price of sugar fell and it became a product of mass consumption, it became clear that the harm from it is much greater than the imaginary benefit and pleasure.
However, artificial analogs of sugar have always caused controversy in the scientific community. In the last quarter of the 20th century, scientists began to actively research the effects of sweeteners on human health. For example, in 1996, one group of Western experts stated that the increase in the number of brain-tumours may be due precisely to the universal spread of aspartame, the very substitute for sugar in soda. The media quickly spread this occasion, and soon in the public consciousness, aspartame became associated with oncology in general.
In order to establish in as much detail as possible the effect of a popular supplement on the body, the American National Cancer Institute organized a large-scale study – almost 10 years long and with half a million participants.
According to its results, no association was found between taking aspartame and an increased risk of brain cancer, leukemia and lymphoma. As a result, even children and pregnant women were allowed to take this supplement, but not more than the recommended daily intake (40 mg per kg of body weight).
Trust but Verify
Today, no known sweetener appears on the consumer market without serious research – after all, they are primarily produced for people with certain health conditions.
In general, all sugar substitutes known to date do not harm the body (in the absence of a number of chronic diseases), help stabilize the blood glycemic index, and also fight overweight. And yet you need to very carefully follow the recommendations and study the contraindications for taking such supplements.
So, some of the most common synthetic sweeteners (sorbitol, sucralose) can adversely affect the microflora of the gastrointestinal tract and cause diarrhea.
In addition, a considerable number of artificial sweeteners are not recommended to be heat treated – which means they should be added to tea or coffee or used in homemade baked goods. According to some studies, when heated, such substances can become toxic.
With each new scientific study, it becomes clear not only the harmlessness, but even some of the benefits of the effect of sweeteners on the body. Perhaps the best part of recent discoveries is that sweeteners reduce the likelihood of tooth decay and other inflammatory processes in the oral cavity. Unlike sugar, they do not contribute to the growth of disease-causing bacteria – and some of them (such as xylitol) even neutralize the acidity of plaque.
Yet experts warn that sugar substitutes are not capable of treating obesity and type 2 diabetes. On the contrary, they can provoke the development of these diseases.
The point is not at all in the composition of sweeteners, but in our attitude towards them. Often, by introducing a sweetener into their diet, a person begins to eat much more sweets than before. Of course, supplements are zero calories and are free of fat and carbohydrates. However, do not forget that all this is contained in foods and drinks, the taste of which we brighten up thanks to sweeteners.
Scientists have come to the conclusion that we get better not only because we eat ordinary sweets, but simply taste the sweet taste.
There is a version that when the receptors of the tongue come into contact with sweeteners, a signal is sent to the brain that he was “deceived” and did not give him the necessary calories. This is followed by a stress reaction and the production of a large portion of insulin, a hormone responsible for the processing of sugar derivatives in the body. With a genetic predisposition, this can cause weight gain. That is why the FDA does not consider sweeteners to be products that contribute to maintaining a normal weight, and nutrition experts recommends avoiding certain types of artificial sweeteners altogether.
However, everything is deeply individual. When starting to take sugar alternatives, some people, on the contrary, notice a decrease in cravings for the usual sweets with natural sugar in the composition. This is because sweeteners have a specific and more pronounced taste that may be more liked than regular sugar.
Allowed List of Sugar Substitutes
As you can see, the situation with artificial sweeteners is very ambiguous. When taking them, you need to monitor your diet no less strictly and not get carried away with desserts. Therefore, each of us needs to independently determine on what basis the sweet should remain in the diet.
“Regular refined sugar is better off anyway – even if you are taking very little of it. Due to the thermochemical treatment, the refining process can hardly be called useful: after it, sugar loses all its natural vitamins and minerals. And due to the fact that it is quickly absorbed, after a meal you will still feel a little hunger – no matter how much you ate,” explains the founder of the healthy food brand.
Unrefined sugars (coconut, cane) do not undergo additional purification, so they retain not only useful trace elements, but also dietary fiber that has a beneficial effect on digestion.
“Natural syrups made from fruits, cereals and herbs are a great alternative to sugar. They have a lower glycemic index and also contain essential nutrients such as vegetable proteins,” says Alexandra (Nutrition Expert).
Perhaps the newest and most promising sugar substitute is stevia leaf extract. This plant has been used for centuries in South America: not only to improve the taste of dishes, but also for medicinal purposes – for example, to speed up wound healing or improve the digestive tract. Stevia is about 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, so it can be used very sparingly.
Unfortunately, stevia has one drawback, because of which many are very disappointed in it – a bitter herbal aftertaste.
Therefore, manufacturers often combine Stevia extract with artificial sweeteners to mask its unusual taste.
Quite often, Stevia is mixed with the sugar alcohol erythritol, which is commonly called “melon sugar”. Erythritol is also a fairly new player in the sweetener market. It is found in some fruits, but it is produced on an industrial scale by fermenting starches.
Melon sugar has zero calories. And it is also not absorbed by the body – after ingestion, the substance is excreted in the same form as it entered the gastrointestinal tract.
Erythritol is gaining increasing popularity among those who are losing weight. However, its massive distribution is hindered by a rather high price: it costs dozens of times more in comparison with ordinary sugar and its substitutes. The substance is about 30% inferior in sweetness to sugar, and therefore requires more consumption – while only a few grams of other sweeteners give dishes a rich taste.