Once in a while, we all fancy something sweet: but when you’re looking to follow a strict healthy diet and regime, wolfing down a chocolate bar or slurping on a fizzy drink may simply not fit with your plans.
There are plenty of sweet fruits around but if you’re moving away from a diet that’s made up with lots of sweet flavours, or you need something convenient on-the-go, these sweet treats may not be the easiest option.
Instead, many people opt to sweeten their existing meals and snacks with artificial sweeteners that contain no calories but change flavours.
But what are these man-made sweeteners, how effective are they, and how safe are they? Let’s investigate.
The List of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that can be added to food and drink to enhance and/or change the taste.
Chemically-engineered to mimic sugar molecules and trick the tongue’s taste receptors into thinking it’s eating sugar, artificial sweeteners don’t break down into calories and are often considerably sweeter.
There are hundreds of chemically engineered sweeteners in existence but different countries have different food safety legislation and allow different types to be sold.
They’re found in thousands of household products, particularly ‘diet’ types, and in the UK, the following artificial sweeteners are approved for inclusion in food and drink:
- Acesulfame K
All of these are added to food and drinks sold packaged, but some are also available purely in sweetener form for the individual to add to their own products as they wish to.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Have Side Effects?
As with any artificially created ingredient, the human body absorbs synthetic sweeteners in a different way to natural ones.
Therefore whilst the UK government maintains that the artificial sweeteners it has approved are safe, they may not necessarily be healthy.
The human body needs a certain amount of sugar to function healthily, but too much of it is unhealthy.
Maintaining a healthy level of sugar in your diet can be a challenge – but what impact do chemicals imitating sugar molecules have on health?
In truth, it varies: so any side effects that artificial sweeteners can have on the body depends on which type of sweetener the individual is consuming.
Aspartame Side Effects
Aspartame is two hundred times sweeter than sugar, so very little of it is needed to give food or drink a real sweetness kick.
It is the most common artificial sweetener on the high street but is extremely controversial and has courted a lot of negative press over the last decade.
There are now full campaigns and movements calling for the banning of aspartame as a result of the negative side effects it can have in some individuals.
Such campaigning led to the European Food Safety Authority leading a review of aspartame in 2013.
The review found that aspartame did have commonly occurring side effects, but that these didn’t occur for everyone – so it wasn’t removed from safety lists.
The reported side effects caused by aspartame vary greatly; and there’s lots of them!
Realistically, however, aspartame is so widely used by large corporations, there’s little to no research available that yields negative results; as it’s primarily been commissioned by companies looking to disprove negative connotations with it as an ingredient.
However, there are some studies that do prove some of the side effects reported by so many members of the public.
Aspartame has been proven to be a seizure trigger by doctors investigating it, and firsthand accounts of people experiencing this are documented well online.
Other side effects reported by individuals include cancer, headaches, depression, ADHD and dizziness. Ongoing research is finding some evidence to support these claims, but it has yet to be completed.
Aspartame is, for many people, the biggest source of methanol in their diet, and it is toxic in high quantities.
As an aside, people taking medication for schizophrenia and those suffering with the condition phenylketonuria shouldn’t ever consume aspartame, as it can interfere with their medications and treatments.
Sucralose Side Effects
Sucralose is a sweetener found frequently across the high street as a sugar alternative for hot drinks; primarily under the brand name of Splenda.
It is a zero calorie artificial sweetener and was actually created by mistake – by a science student who misheard instructions on substance testing, and tasted his creation!
There’s evidence to suggest it can cause several negative side effects.
If you don’t regularly consume sweeteners, it can elevate your blood sugar and insulin levels to unhealthy levels.
This is temporary, however, so can be overcome – but you’d need to regularly consume Sucralose through any discomfort or health problems for this to lessen over time.
Studies have shown that sucralose can also have a negative effect on the gut bacteria and can contribute to an increase in BMI; which of course is likely the opposite of the effect you’re hoping for in cutting out sugar!
There is evidence to suggest that Sucralose is not safe for baking, as it begins to interact negatively with other ingredients when it reaches over 175c: sometimes producing chloropropanols, which can increase the risk of cancer.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Cause Cancer?
Campaigners, both online and off, argue that artificial sweeteners contribute to the development of cancer.
This was fuelled by a clinical study back in 1970 that found high levels of sweeteners increased the chances of developing bladder cancer.
As a result of this study, cyclamate was banned in several countries.
Since the 70s, numerous different studies have explored the link between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and cancer.
There have been no definitive conclusions to prove that artificial sweeteners cause cancer when they’re consumed within the parameters of the recommended daily amounts: but studies are ongoing and remain controversial with so many individuals online publicising their differing experiences.
Artificial Sweeteners Vs Sugar: Which is Safer?
Limiting sugar intake to a sensible and healthy amount is a good thing, but whether or not it should be entirely replaced with artificial sweeteners remains to be seen.
Nutritionists and dieticians will mostly advise that individuals should follow personal choice, but all agree that if you can consume natural ingredients over synthetic ones, that should be the preference.
As artificial sweetener chemicals continue to be developed and change, their impact on health will develop too.
For now, the impact on health long-term is unknown.
Are There Any Natural Sweetener Alternatives?
There are natural sweeteners that can be used in place of adding sugar to food and drink.
However, these two should be used only in moderation and never in place of a good, well-balanced, healthy nutritionally-profiled meal.
Stevia is growing in popularity in the Western world and is a plant reared primarily in South America exactly for sweetening purposes.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol found in fruit. It can be powdered industrially and bought as a food-safe sweetener. Studies have shown no impact, either positive or negative, on the health of those consuming it.
Yacon Syrup is harvested from the yacon plant and is, in some areas, sold as a sweetener. It’s very effective in food and drink but isn’t sold widely.
Xylitol is also a sugar alcohol and is commonly found in foodstuffs such as chewing gum and sweets. It’s technically natural but can’t be bought as a standalone sweetener to add to food and drink yourself.
Wherever possible, natural ingredients are always preferable to man-made ones.
Whilst it may be quick and convenient to add a sprinkle of a synthetic sweetener to food and drink to taste, the health effects of this tiny ingredient may outweigh the flavour benefits.
If you’re committing to following a healthy and fit lifestyle that includes a nutritionally-balanced diet, there are options out there that can maintain the convenience of an on-the-go meal and actually taste good too!
Examples of this can be seen with Nutribuddy shakes. Nutribuddy offers meals on-the-go which are manufactured using only natural ingredients including the highest grade of natural sweetener, stevia.
Synthetic chemicals are a fact of life now but there’s no need to consume them overtly if you don’t need to – and in a real effort to boost your health and wellbeing, whole foods and natural ingredients should be prioritised.