What You Should Know About Artificial Sweeteners And Sugar Substitutes
Written by Calvin Sun
Most people can agree that eating large quantities of refined sugar isn’t great for your health, fitness, or body composition. Sugar provides a large amount of rapidly absorbable carbohydrates, which can lead to issues like excessive caloric intake, weight gain, and metabolic syndrome [1,2,3].
In an effort to reduce intake of sugar and calories, many people turn to artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes to satiate their cravings for sweets. While these low-calorie or no-calorie substitutes may seem like innocuous sweeteners, they may carry health consequences worse than the table sugar they are meant to replace.
1. Artificial Sweeteners May Promote Weight Gain
Multiple studies have found that consumption of artificial sweeteners can actually increase weight gain. In animal studies, researchers have found that despite eating the same amount of calories, the addition of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin resulted in increased weight gain compared to table sugar [4,5]. Studies on children and adolescents have found that increased diet soda consumption is associated with significantly increased BMI scores [6,7]. Other research has found that substituting diet beverages for sugar-sweetened beverages to be ineffective for reducing weight [8,9].
2. Artificial Sweeteners Have Been Linked To Health Problems
A 2008 study found that consumption of Splenda (sucralose) reduced beneficial gut microflora and caused alterations in pH values . Sucralose has also been found to affect the way the body reacts to glucose resulting in higher blood sugar and elevated insulin response . Another study published earlier this year found that consumption of aspartame can result in irritable mood, depression, and diminished performance on spatial orientation tests .
3. Many “Natural” Sweeteners Are High In Fructose
Many natural sweeteners contain high amounts of fructose which can also be problematic. Agave nectar is commonly marketed as a healthy sugar alternative despite the fact that it contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. Fructose can affect your blood lipids  and has been directly linked to obesity and weight gain [13,14,15]. Refined honey and fruit juice concentrates are other common sugar alternatives that you might want to use minimally. Read my post, “Liquid Death“, for some more information on agave nectar and fructose consumption.
4. Sugar Alcohols Can Cause GI Problems
Erythritol, Lactitol, Maltitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, and Xylitol are common sugar alcohols that you’ll find in products ranging from protein bars to chewing gum. These sweeteners are considered a class of polyols, which are part of a class of carbohydrates known as FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols). These carbohydrates and related alcohols are poorly digested and can exacerbate gut symptoms . Sugar alcohols can cause gas, pain, bloating, and diarrhea . If you aren’t convinced, just eat some sugar-free gummy bears and you’ll find out first hand how sugar alcohols can affect your GI tract.
Are There Any Safe Sugar Alternatives?
If you must use a sugar substitute, consider using stevia. The research thus far on stevia seems very positive. It doesn’t appear to increase appetite and might actually help improve insulin sensitivity [19,20]. Though, it’s probably best to exercise some moderation when it comes to consumption of sugars and artificial sweeteners. If you are trying to improve your health and body composition, consider avoiding using artificial sweeteners in place of sugar and focus on building good nutrition habits that don’t involve a dependency on artificial sweets and drowning your sorrows in diet soda. The Invictus Nutrition Coaching program and Look Good Feel Good Challenges are great ways to start building solid nutrition habits.
1. Popkin BM, Nielsen SJ. The sweetening of the world’s diet. Obes Res. 2003;11:1325–1332.
2. Schulze MB, Manson JE, Ludwig DS, Colditz GA, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. et al. Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women. JAMA. 2004;292:927–934.
3. Saris WHM. Sugars, energy metabolism, and body weight control. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78:850S–857S.
4. Fernanda de Matos Feijóa et al. Saccharin and aspartame, compared with sucrose, induce greater weight gain in adult Wistar rats, at similar total caloric intake levels. Appetite. Volume 60, 1 January 2013, Pages 203–207.
5. Swithers SE, Davidson TL. A role for sweet taste: calorie predictive relations in energy regulation by rats. Behav Neurosci. 2008 Feb;122(1):161-73. doi: 10.1037/0735-7044.122.1.161.
6. Blum JW, Jacobsen DJ, Donnelly JE. Beverage consumption patterns in elementary school aged children across a two-year period. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005;24:93–98.
7. Forshee RA, Storey ML. Total beverage consumption and beverage choices among children and adolescents. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2003;54:297–307.
8. Mattes RD, Popkin BM. Nonnutritive sweetener consumption in humans: effects on appetite and food intake and their putative mechanisms. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89:1–14.
9. Brown RJ, de Banate MA, Rother KI. Artificial Sweeteners: A systematic review of metabolic effects in youth. [Epub 18 Jan 2010];Int J Pediatr Obes.
10. Abou-Donia MB, El-Masry EM, Abdel-Rahman AA, McLendon RE, Schiffman SS. Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2008;71(21):1415-29. doi: 10.1080/15287390802328630.
11. Glenda N. Lindseth, Sonya E. Coolahan, Thomas V. Petros and Paul D. Lindseth. Neurobehavioral Effects of Aspartame Consumption. Research in Nursing & Health. Volume 37, Issue 3, pages 185–193, June 2014. DOI: 10.1002/nur.21595.
12. M. Y. Pepino, C. D. Tiemann, B. W. Patterson, B. M. Wice, S. Klein. Sucralose Affects Glycemic and Hormonal Responses to an Oral Glucose Load. Diabetes Care, 2013; DOI: 10.2337/dc12-2221.
13. George A Bray, Samara Joy Nielsen, and Barry M Popkin. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr April 2004 vol. 79 no. 4 537-543.
14. Elliott SS, Keim NL, Stern JS, Teff K, Havel PJ. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:911–22.
15. D.P. Figlewicz, G. Ioannou, J. Bennett Jay, S. Kittleson, C. Savard, C.L. Roth. Effect of moderate intake of sweeteners on metabolic health in the rat. Phys & Behavior, 2009, Vol. 98, 5, 618-624.
16. Bantle JP, Raatz SK, Thomas W, Georgopoulos A. Effects of dietary fructose on plasma lipids in healthy subjects. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;72:1128–34.
17. Gibson PR, Shepherd SJ. Evidence-based dietary management of functional gastrointestinal symptoms: The FODMAP approach. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2010 Feb;25(2):252-8.
18. Jacqueline S. Barrett. Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs) and nonallergic food intolerance: FODMAPs or food chemicals?. Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology July 2012 vol. 5 no. 4 261-268.
19. Chang JC, Wu MC, Liu IM, Cheng JT. Increase of insulin sensitivity by stevioside in fructose-rich chow-fed rats. Horm Metab Res. 2005 Oct;37(10):610-6.
20. Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, Coulon S, Cefalu WT, Geiselman P, Williamson DA. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2010 Aug;55(1):37-43. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2010.03.009. Epub 2010 Mar 18.