The Bittersweet Truth About Artificial Sweeteners

The Bittersweet Truth About Artificial Sweeteners
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We’ve all been there: standing in the supermarket, staring at the array of colorful packets of beverages, wondering which one to choose. The promise of “zero calories” is tempting, but are these drinks with this type of sweeteners really a healthy choice? Let’s dig into the world of artificial sweeteners and see what science has to say.

(Read also: Eating Less and Moving More: Why It’s Not That Simple)

Why Do People Use Artificial Sweeteners?

The primary advantage of artificial sweeteners is caloric reduction. They promise the sweetness of sugar without the calories. Sounds like a win-win, right? Not so fast.

The No-So-Sweet Side of Artificial Sweeteners

While these sweeteners might cut down on calories and sugar, they don’t necessarily reduce insulin levels. And it’s insulin that’s a key player in weight gain and diabetes. So, if they don’t tackle the insulin issue, are they really beneficial?

Moreover, consuming chemicals that aren’t naturally found in food, like aspartame and sucralose, might not be the best idea. Some studies have shown that people using artificial sweeteners are more likely to gain weight. For instance, a 1986 study found that women using these sweeteners were more likely to gain weight. Another study in 2008 revealed that diet beverages, often sweetened artificially, increased the risk of obesity by a whopping 47%1.

The Downside of Artificial Sweeteners

Cravings

Here’s the twist: while you might be consuming fewer calories, your brain might not be satisfied. When it senses sweetness without the accompanying calories, it feels cheated. This can lead to increased appetite and cravings. In simpler terms, your brain might push you to eat more sweet stuff to feel rewarded2.

MRI studies have shown that while glucose (a type of sugar) fully activates the brain’s reward center, sucralose (an artificial sweetener) doesn’t. This incomplete activation can stimulate cravings for sweet food3.

Gut Health

These sweeteners can change the balance of your gut bacteria within a week. The good news? Stop using them, and your gut health can bounce back in a few weeks4.

Highly Processed

Most popular artificial sweeteners undergo a lot of processing. In that sense, they’re not much better than regular sugar, which comes from natural sources like sugar beets.

Real-Life Observations

When people consume regular sugar, there’s a noticeable spike in blood sugar. But with artificial sweeteners, the story is different. For example, while aspartame might not cause an immediate rise, it can lead to a higher spike an hour later. Natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit have shown similar results.

The Artificial Sweeteners Line-up

  1. Saccharine: Originally created as a drink additive for diabetics.
  2. Aspartame: This is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. Surprisingly, it can raise insulin levels even more than table sugar! Commonly found in diet sodas, sugar-free snacks, and breakfast cereals.
  3. Agave: Derived from the agave plant. Its low glycemic index is due to its high fructose content.
  4. Stevia: Comes from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It’s 300 times sweeter than regular sugar and, like aspartame, can raise insulin levels more than table sugar.
  5. Sucralose: This sweetener raises insulin by 20%, even though it has no calories or sugar.

Conclusion

While the allure of “zero calories” is strong, it’s essential to understand the broader picture. Artificial sweeteners might not be the magic solution they’re often made out to be. It’s always a good idea to be informed and make choices that align with your health goals.

References

  1. Fowler, S. P., Williams, K., Resendez, R. G., Hunt, K. J., Hazuda, H. P., & Stern, M. P. (2008). Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.)16(8), 1894–1900. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2008.284 ↩︎
  2. Yang Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale journal of biology and medicine83(2), 101–108. ↩︎
  3. Smeets, P. A., de Graaf, C., Stafleu, A., van Osch, M. J., & van der Grond, J. (2005). Functional magnetic resonance imaging of human hypothalamic responses to sweet taste and calories. The American journal of clinical nutrition82(5), 1011–1016. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/82.5.1011 ↩︎
  4. Suez, J., Korem, T., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Segal, E., & Elinav, E. (2015). Non-caloric artificial sweeteners and the microbiome: findings and challenges. Gut microbes6(2), 149–155. https://doi.org/10.1080/19490976.2015.1017700 ↩︎

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