If you are trying to save calories, no-calorie sweeteners seem like the way to go. Most are artificial concoctions, however. Your body doesn’t really know what to do with them. Several studies have drawn a correlation between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. The San Antonio Heart Study examined more than 3,500 people and found that those who drank artificially sweetened beverages consistently had higher BMIs over an 8-year period. Studies from the early 1980s and the 1970s also showed a positive correlation between artificial sweetener use and weight gain. Participants didn’t gain a whole lot of weight, but they sure didn’t lose it either.
Sweet tastes stimulate your appetite. That is a biological fact. No-calorie sweeteners may also have an undesired psychological effect. I know if I have a fully sweetened drink, I watch everything else I consume with care. A diet drink has no watchdog effect on me however. Perhaps you feel virtuous having a diet soda, so you eat other high-calorie fare instead. Studies performed by Purdue University in 2008 suggested that your metabolic system is confused by the lack of calories in artificially sweetened food and triggers you to eat more. Consuming artificial sweeteners also sets you up for sugar cravings that you then satisfy with extra cookies, candy and cakes.
Regardless of why we gain weight when eating diet foods, we keep going back to get more of these low-calorie goodies and drinks. When it comes down to it, avoiding artificial, processed foods is your best bet. While some no-calorie substitutes are better than others – you should really minimize your intake of refined sweets altogether – diet or not diet.
Sucralose: The FDA approved sucralose, you probably know it as splenda, in 1998 for use in commercial foods. It is 600 times sweeter than sugar and basically passes through your system undigested. You can bake with sucralose, giving it an advantage over aspartame. Sucralose sells itself as being made from sugar – which is sorta true, but not really. Sucralose is a chemical made with sugar. To date, use of sucralose does not seem to cause any health problems. However, it is still a chemical, synthetic and a sweetener that may increase your urge to eat.
Aspartame: Aspartame has been around a long time – since the 1960s, but was introduced into food in the 1980s. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Scientists make aspartame in a lab with two amino acids. A 1970s study showed aspartame can cause brain tumors in rats, but it continues to be regarded as safe by the FDA despite the California Environmental Protection Agency’s requires that more tests be performed to determine its safety. Italian studies, performed in 2005 and 2007, found links between aspartame and cancer and leukemia in rats, but their findings continue to be controversial. The Center for Science in the Public Interest draws the conclusion that lifelong consumption of aspartame probably does increase your risk of cancer – but no one knows by how much. Aspartame should not be given to children, largely for this reason. In addition, aspartame can cause seizures, dizziness, migraines, confusion, depression and other neurological problems in sensitive people. When it comes down to it – aspartame is scary. Skip it – and I know that means giving up your beloved diet soda.
Acesulfamine K: You may not know Acesulfamine K like you do aspartame or sucralose – but if you consume sugar-free yogurts, sodas or desserts. It usually accompanies sucralose. The FDA approved use of this sweetener, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar, for use in 1998. Doubts exist about the quality of studies showing that the additive is safe. The Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that widespread consumption of acesulfamine K could cause an increase in incidences of cancer and thyroid issues.
Erythritol: Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in some foods and plant products. It is 60 to 70 times sweeter than sugar, and contains about 2 calories per gram. It is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. It is present in low-calorie drinks, desserts, gums and candies, often alongside stevia. It is not linked with any adverse health effects. Unlike sugar alcohols like sorbitol, erythritol does not cause gas and bloating.
Saccharin: Saccharin was discovered about 100 years ago when a scientist was creating coal tar derivatives — and we eat the stuff. Saccharin is not as common given the other options out there, but it is still found in the little pink packages in diners, some diet foods and soft drinks. It is 350 times sweeter than sugar, with a tell-tale aftertaste. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says that research shows the additive causes bladder cancer in rats. Of the 30 human studies, no adverse health effects have been reported. In 2000, the FDA stopped requiring a cancer warning to be printed on foods and beverages containing saccharin.
Stevia: This sweetener, in the form of Rebiana A, is becoming more readily available as a no-calorie sweetener. Although Stevia has been around for about 1,500 years, its use was limited to the region where the yerba dulce plant grows – Paraguay. It is 100 times sweeter than sugar and natural, not chemically, derived. Japan and a number of other countries have used stevia as a sweetener for many years. In the 1990s, the FDA disallowed stevia as a food ingredient citing a study that showed potential fertility complications in rats. It was permitted to be sold as a supplement. Rebiana is made from one of the primary components of stevia and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. In 2008, the FDA lifted its ban on stevia’s use in food products and classified it as “generally recognized as safe.” Many studies have alleviate concerns that stevia may cause reproductive problems. For more about stevia: All About Stevia.
If I am going to use a no-calorie sweetener, I look for stevia or rebiana. A couple of considerations before you get too excited, however. Pure stevia has a bitter, oogy aftertaste, so buying rebiana is best. Also, when we Americans get hold of something, we tend to go a little crazy – putting it in everything. While stevia seems safe, consuming huge amounts of it by guzzling no-calorie drinks, filling up on yogurts and downing bowls of cereal with it as an additive may not be wise.
I’m not innocent, you’ll catch me drinking the occasional diet soda or sports drink. Sometimes, I eat before I look and only after I’ve downed something (a supplement or snack) do I discover it contains acesulfamine K or aspartame. I just think being informed is important, so you can make your own decisions and not just assume because something is in food that it is completely safe. Food manufacturers are out to get you to buy their food. They really don’t care about your health.
If you are interested in the science of sugar and food cravings, check out the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.