Sweeteners: Healthier Than Sugar?

Stevia leaves with stevia powder and sugar cubes on a slate plat


Artificial and plant-based sweeteners have gained a lot of popularity lately – and what’s not to love? They’re calorie-free, they’re hundreds, if not thousands, of times sweeter than regular sugar which means you use less and they’re cheaper. They’re available at practically, if not literally, every grocery store and even doctors are recommending them for those with certain issues such as diabetes.

Sweeteners are relatively new on the market though, and there is still much research to be done to test their long-term effects on the human body. Some of those are plant-based, and sucralose is derived from sugar itself, and some are lab-produced, or synthetic. Artificial sweeteners started being popular and in demand in recent years as the rise of diseases began to be noticed by the public and the way that sugar was negatively impacting human health. It seemed that the solution lied not in giving up sugar in its entirety but in replacing sugar, which is a basic carbohydrate, with other forms of sweeteners. There are six FDA-approved sweeteners on the market right now: acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, stevia, and sucralose.


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Different kinds of sweeteners

Acesulfame was discovered accidentally in 1967 by a German scientist and is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. It has a slightly bitter aftertaste at high concentrations and is a purely synthetic sweetener. It is commonly used under the names of Sunett and Sweet One. Aspartame is just as sweet as acesulfame and is synthetic as well. It is one of the sweeteners approved by use in the European Union in food products but as of yet it has not shown to have any positive effects for weight loss or diabetics. Aspartame comes closest to the same taste profile as regular sugar does and although it does contain calories, the amount of aspartame needed to sweeten a product, in comparison to sugar, is so small that the calories are almost negligible. Aspartame goes by the name NutraSweet on the market and has been the subject of many controversies on its safety in recent years.

Neotame is much sweeter than acesulfame or aspartame – it’s almost seven to thirteen thousand times sweeter than regular table sugar. It has also been approved by the European Union for use because it is quickly metabolized, doesn’t accumulate in the body and is extremely potent. Neotame is not currently widely used in food products as it is similar in structure to aspartame and has had some controversy surrounding it. Saccharin was discovered in the 1800s by scientists at John Hopkins University and is often used in conjunction with other sweeteners to stabilize them and help masks the aftertaste. At one point it was thought to cause bladder cancer since it was observed in laboratory mice that were fed saccharin, but this idea was later reversed as it was found that mice had a certain mechanism in their bodies that humans do not that was causing them to get cancer from saccharin.

Stevia and sucralose are the only two sweeteners that are plant-derived, each in their own way. Stevia comes from the stevia plant; a naturally sweet plant originally found in Paraguay and was derived from the plant’s leaves. Sucralose is the chlorination of sucrose, or regular table sugar. Sucralose goes by the popular market name of Splenda although there are a few other sweeteners that also are sucralose-based. Both stevia and sucralose are quite stable and are widely approved throughout the world for food use.


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The pros and cons of sweeteners

Many studies have been conducted by the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies and all have found these sweeteners to be generally safe for consumption, even for pregnant women. Even the warning label for saccharin has been dropped now due to newer research. Synthetic sweeteners are said to help with weight loss, and thus all of the issues that come with being overweight, and help to manage diabetes.

But Harvard Health warns that not all artificial sweeteners are created equal and could have other unintended consequences to our health. One downside that has been floated around is that eating foods made with artificial sweeteners might prompt us to eat more of them since we think that there are no calories in the sweeteners added and thus we can enjoy more. This would contradict the idea that artificial sweeteners can help you lose weight because they’re low in calories.

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