The health effects of a high sugar diet are well known. Too much sugar is linked with an increased chance of being overweight or obese, having heart disease, and generally poor nutrition status. The problem though is that sugar is so readily available in our diet, it can be difficult to avoid. As we have become more savvy with what is in our food and the need to avoid sugar, food companies have turned to an alternative – artificial sweeteners. Touted as being a far healthier choice, they allow us to still have the sweetness without the health consequences. Or do they?
What type of sugar should we be concerned about?
Let’s start with the types of sugar in our diet, and where sweeteners fit into this. The sugar that is abundant in food falls into two main categories: natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars, such as the fructose an apple for example, are naturally contained in the wholefood. These sugars are nothing to really be concerned about, because mother nature has taken care of this for us. For example, a piece of whole fruit, while containing fructose, also contains dietary fibre. The fibre slows down the rate at which the sugar in the fruit is absorbed, and therefore prevents large spikes in our blood sugar levels.
Let’s start with the types of sugar in our diet, and where sweeteners fit into this. The sugar that is abundant in food falls into two main categories: natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars, such as the fructose an apple for example, are naturally contained in the wholefood.
Added sugars on the other hand, are added during food processing, usually in very large amounts. This is the type of sugar that we need to be watching. If we don’t add sugar to our cereal or coffee ourselves than our diets must be pretty low in added sugars, right?. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as added sugars can be hidden in so many foods that you would not suspect.
This is where artificial sweeteners come in. They are an alternative to added sugars in food processing. They still give the sweetness, but without the calories. Is this truly healthy though? Let’s break it down.
The Different Types of Sweeteners
There are many different sweeteners that you may notice on food packets and ingredient lists. Aspartame, Saccharin and Sucralose are all common ones. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar, so therefore can be used in much smaller amounts to give the same taste. The safety of artificial sweeteners is checked thoroughly by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) before that sweetener is allowed to be added to food products. It is quite a conflicting area of research, as many of the studies that raised concerns used animal models, with far greater quantities of artificial sweeteners than most of us would actually consume in an average diet.
What about Stevia I hear you ask? Stevia is a plant-based natural sweetener from the stevia rebaudiana plant. Many prefer this option, as it is viewed as less synthetic than other sweeteners. However, stevia can sometimes be mixed with other substances, which leads to questions around just how natural this product actually is.
The Bottom Line
Like many things in nutrition, the key is really moderation. The use of artificial sweeteners is quite new in food manufacturing. Due to this, we do not have long-term data on the effects of these substances on our bodies. The best option is to try to reduce your use of both sugar and artificial sweeteners altogether. Our taste buds do adapt with time, so start by making simple swaps to reduce your intake. If your diet is mostly made up of unprocessed wholefoods, your intake of both added sugars and artificial sweeteners will be quite low anyway!
Feature image: Donna Hay