Sweeteners are commonly found in dietary supplements, but not all of them are created equal. While some sweeteners can benefit your health, others may have negative effects. Knowing how to decipher the good from the not-so-good sweeteners can help you stay on top of your health while reaching your fitness goals.
This article discusses everything you need to know about sweeteners, including the best and worst options for your health and their benefits and risks.
- Refined sugars and artificial sweeteners have been associated with adverse health effects. These include an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, fatty liver disease, and the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
- Natural sweeteners like honey, dates, maple syrup, and monk fruit are healthier than refined sugars and artificial sweeteners. They contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds that offer potential health benefits.
- While natural sweeteners are a better alternative, they should still be consumed in moderation due to their high calorie and sugar content. Stevia and monk fruit are exceptions, as they are low in calories and sugar.
FIRST OFF, WHAT'S UP WITH TABLE SUGAR?
The use of refined sugars, like table sugar, has increased over the last few decades. It’s found in everything from tea and desserts to dietary supplements and baked goods.
But here’s the catch: the process of refining strips away important nutrients that our bodies need for optimal health. Plus, many chemical additives are used in the preparation of table sugar that can be harmful to your health.
Heart disease: Over consuming added sugars in the form of table sugar, or sucrose, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and deaths related to heart problems. In contrast, a diet low in added sugars and refined carbohydrates may reverse these effects.
Obesity: Table sugar provides us with a lot of calories but lacks essential nutrients. Excess consumption of these empty calories can lead to weight gain and obesity, causing chronic disease.
Diabetes: Diets high in refined sugars have been linked to the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. The changes in blood sugar after consuming refined sugars can also lead to fatigue and energy crashes.
THE BEST: NATURAL SWEETENERS + SUGAR SUBSTITUTES
Switching from refined sugars to natural and whole-food sweeteners can help optimize your health and improve your exercise performance.
Honey is an antioxidant-rich sweetener that has been used for years to enhance the flavor of foods and beverages. It’s lower on the glycemic index (GI) than table sugar, which means it is less likely to cause blood sugar spikes. Honey also has the potential to fight inflammation, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and even treat bacterial infections.
Date sweeteners are less processed than table sugar. This means they retain many important vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial plant compounds found in dates. Date sweeteners are also typically higher in fiber, which can prevent blood sugar spikes and support gut health.
Maple syrup, made from the sap of maple trees, is a better-for-you sweetener that is minimally processed and free of additives.
Compared to traditional sweeteners, maple syrup causes a milder increase in blood sugar and insulin levels. It also contains decent amounts of potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese, and a range of phenolic compounds.
Phenolic compounds are plant metabolites that may help protect the body against damage that causes heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
Monk fruit sweeteners, extracted from monk fruit, are 100 to 250 times sweeter than table sugar yet virtually calorie-free. They are ideal for those who want to reduce their daily calorie intake without sacrificing taste.
Unlike most fruits that get their sweetness from fructose and glucose, monk fruit’s sweetness primarily comes from natural compounds called mogrosides.
Studies show compounds in monk fruit, particularly mogrosides, may help regulate blood sugar, fight against tumors, and reduce inflammation.
Stevia is a natural sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It is a zero-calorie sweetener, estimated to be 200 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar.
Stevia has been studied for its potential benefits, including antioxidant and antibacterial properties, as well as its use in treating immune diseases.
However, some people find that stevia has a bitter aftertaste and prefer to use alternatives like monk fruit.
Additionally, some studies suggest that stevia may disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. However, due to conflicting studies and a lack of high-quality evidence, further research is required to fully understand its effects.
THE WORST: NON NUTRITIVE SWEETENERS
Although once thought of as a healthy alternative to table sugar, research shows artificial sweeteners, also known as nonnutritive sweeteners, may actually be harmful.
You’ll want to steer clear of these sweeteners to minimize potential health risks.
Sucralose is a zero-calorie artificial sweetener, often found in yellow packets. It's about 600 times sweeter than table sugar and is used in protein powders, diet sodas, fruit juice, and processed foods.
Despite being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), several studies have linked sucralose to health problems.
Insulin sensitivity refers to how well our bodies respond to insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels.
When insulin sensitivity is decreased, it puts more pressure on the pancreas to produce additional insulin to lower blood sugar levels. Over time, this increased demand on the pancreas can potentially lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.
However, further human studies are needed to fully understand these connections.
- Mood disorders
- Mental stress
- Early first menstruation in young girls
- Insulin resistance
- Premature birth
Still, further studies are needed to confirm aspartame’s potential side effects and adverse health effects, especially with long-term exposure.
Like artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are created synthetically, often derived from sugars. They’re 25–100% as sweet as sugar and commonly found in chewing gum, protein bars, hard candies, and soft drinks.
However, because they are poorly absorbed in the body, sugar alcohols tend to produce uncomfortable symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea. The amount of sugar alcohol that can cause gastrointestinal symptoms varies from person to person.
Examples of sugar alcohols include:
HOW ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS AFFECT YOU
Artificial sweeteners are approved as food additives by the FDA and considered safe in amounts that do not exceed the acceptable daily intake. However, growing evidence suggests they may negatively affect our health.
In particular, long-term use of artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes seems to increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Artificial sweeteners may also have a negative impact on the gut microbiome.
As we know, gut health is extremely important for our overall health and well-being.
WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?
Natural sweeteners like honey, dates, and monk fruit are healthier than table sugar and artificial sweeteners. These natural alternatives undergo minimal processing and, as a result, retain more vitamins and minerals than other sweeteners. Furthermore, natural sweeteners contain antioxidants and other beneficial plant compounds. These nutrients can help offset the negative effects of refined sugar.
It's important to remember that while natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and dates are healthier alternatives to artificial and processed sweeteners, they are still high in sugar. Therefore, it’s a good idea to consume them in moderation.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All sweeteners are not created equal.
Natural sweeteners like honey, dates, maple syrup, and monk fruit are healthier than processed sugar and artificial sweeteners. This is because they contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which can offer health benefits.
On the other hand, refined sugars and artificial sweeteners are highly processed. They have been linked to unfavorable changes in the gut microbiome, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses when consumed in excess.
While natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are healthier alternatives to table sugar, they should be consumed in moderation due to their high calorie and sugar content. Stevia and monk fruit are exceptions, as they are low in calories and sugar.