Ahhh..sugar, how sweet it is. Sugar is the most over-consumed carbohydrate in the world. We can’t live without it, because it has benefits like fueling our body and especially our brain but too much of it can cause multiple heath problems. So how does it all work? We process carbohydrates from the food we eat, such as fruits, vege’s. fiber and dairy products, and turn much of it into glucose. The problem occurs when we eat more foods with added sugar ( donuts, bread, candy soda, sweet fruit punch, etc), vs foods with naturally occurring sugar. The problems and disadvantages with overconsumption of sugars cannot be understated. Risks include metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, heart disease, fatty liver disease, weight gain, dental cavities, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Plus sugar can make you feel tired, cause headaches and difficulty concentrating after that quick surge of energy has fallen. So are artificial sweeteners the answer?
Certain sweeteners such as fruit juices, molasses, honey and maple syrup contain natural sugars and have some nutritional benefits. Fruits have fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, while honey and maple syrup have antioxidants and minerals such as iron, zinc, potassium and calcium.
In an effort to reduce the long-term manifestations of sugar, many people have resorted to sugar substitutes. The goal is to lower the risk of adverse health conditions but still taste that sweetness in our foods. It may seem like the best of both worlds but it actually is worse for you.
A prospective cohort study was done to study the associations between artificial sweeteners from all dietary sources such as sugar drinks, table top sweeteners and dietary products overall and also by certain molecules (aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium) of artificial sweeteners and the risk of cardiovascular disease. A cohort study is a longitudinal study that follows over time a group of similar individuals who differ with respect to certain factors under study to see how these factors affect certain outcomes.
This study included over 103,000 mainly French females that were followed for an average of 9 years. A food questionnaire used 24-hour recalls which recorded what everyone ate or drank for multiple 24-hour periods. The study included all food sources of artificial sweeteners. The endpoints included all cardiovascular disease including heart disease, coronary heart disease and stroke.
The findings suggest a potential direct association between higher artificial sweetener consumption and increased cardiovascular disease risk. This study also broke down which artificial sweeteners had the greatest risk of disease. Aspartame (Equal) was associated with the greatest risk of stroke. This sweetener was found to be metabolized into many compounds, including formaldehyde. This can break down the blood-brain barrier causing risk of CNS toxicity, inflammation and stroke. BMJ Artificial Sweeteners
The other common artificial sweetener was Sucralose (Splenda). This was associated with the highest coronary heart disease risk. It is only partially absorbed chemically and has the largest effect on the microbiome. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners.
There are many harmful effects of artificial sweeteners including weight gain (the main reason people use these products!), metabolic dysregulation, inflammation, dysbiosis and endothelial dysfunction. These substances are often used in combination with other unhealthy lifestyle choices. These substances are being used more and more in our food supply especially for low calorie, low cost processed foods.
There are safer choices that I recommend:
1. Satisfy sweet cravings with fruit such as berries, bananas and mango. Try dehydrated fruits that you can chew on that gives a certain texture that may satisfy you. Skip the sodas, energy drinks and fruit juices.
2. If you must have a sweetener then consider a novel sweetener that’s derived from plants like, Stevia or Monk fruit. Yes, there are other sweeteners that come from plants, but novel sweeteners don’t lead to weight gain or blood sugar spikes and they are less processed.
3. And please…do not use Agave. It is worse than high fructose corn syrup because it is higher in fructose.
4. I would also consider a good local source of honey. It is 25% sweeter than table sugar so you need very little to get that sweet taste.
References: Rakel, D. Association intakes of artificial sweeteners with risk of cardiovascular diseases. BMJ, Practice Update. Sept 22 2022.
Leonard, J. Is honey better for you than sugar? Medical News Today. June 1, 2017.
Ziesel, J. Facts about sugar and sugar substitutes. Johns Hopkins Medicine- Health