Here’s another nutrition post from Emily with the low down on artificial sweeteners, what they are made of and what they are doing to your body. Give it a read.
Sweets….. Artificial sweeteners, what are they actually doing to your body & your waistline?
But most of us are accustomed to sweet foods, and don’t want to live our lives without them. For this reason, various artificial chemicals have been invented to replicate the effects of sugar. These are substances that can stimulate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue.
These chemicals are known as “artificial” sweeteners… as opposed to “natural” sweeteners like sugar or honey. These chemicals are very sweet, and they are often added to foods and beverages that are then marketed as weight loss friendly, makes sense given that they are virtually calorie free.
However, despite increased use of these low-calorie sweeteners (and diet foods in general), the obesity epidemic has only gotten worse.
So… what is the truth about artificial sweeteners? How do they affect appetite, body weight and our risk for obesity-related disease?
There Are Many Different Types of Artificial Sweeteners
There are numerous different artificial sweeteners available and the chemical structure varies between them. What they all have in common, is that they are incredibly effective at stimulating the sweet taste receptors on the tongue. In fact, most are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, gram for gram.
Some of them (such as aspartame) do contain calories, but the total amount needed to provide a sweet flavor is so little that the calories you ingest are negligible. Here is a table showing the most common artificial sweeteners, how sweet they are relative to sugar, and brand names they are sold under:
Then there are other low-calorie sweeteners that are processed from natural ingredients and therefore don’t count as “artificial.” This includes the natural zero-calorie sweetener stevia, as well as sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol and mannitol. Sugar alcohols tend to have similar sweetness as sugar but less than half as many calories. (We talk about these tomorrow)
Artificial Sweeteners & Appetite
We don’t just seek food to satisfy energy needs. If we did eating would be a lot less fun for us and our brain. We also seek so-called “reward” from food. Sugar-sweetened foods trigger brain chemicals and hormones to be released, part of what is known as the “food reward” pathway. “Food reward” is crucial to feeling satisfied after eating and shares brain circuitry with addictive behaviors, including drugs. While artificial sweeteners provide sweet taste, many researchers believe that the lack of calories prevents complete activation of the food reward pathway.
So, this may be the reason artificial sweeteners are linked with increased appetite and cravings for sugary food in some studies. It may be that sweetness without the calories leads to further food seeking behavior, adding to your overall caloric intake. Your body is seeking something.
Sweeteners & Sugar Cravings
Another argument opposing artificial sweeteners is that the unnatural sweetness encourages sugar cravings and sugar dependence. This idea is logical considering that flavor preferences in humans can be trained with repeated exposure. Remember that whole, good be gets good?
For example, we know that reducing salt or fat for several weeks leads to a preference for lower levels of those nutrients. Sweetness is no different. While this is not proven exclusively yet, it does seem to make sense. The more we eat of sweet foods, the more we want them.
Some observational studies have found artificial sweeteners to be linked with increased weight, but the evidence is mixed. There is no conclusive studies showing a link between them and weight/fat reduction.
Artificial Sweeteners & Metabolic Health
There are some observational studies (again, studies that don’t prove anything) linking artificial sweetener consumption to metabolic disease. This includes an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Sometimes the results are quite staggering… for example, one study found that diet soft drinks were linked to a 121% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. SCARY!
Another study found that these beverages were linked to a 34% greater risk of metabolic syndrome.
This is supported by a recent high-profile study on artificial sweeteners, showing that they caused a disruption in the gut bacterial environment and induced glucose intolerance in both rats and humans.