• Richard McDonough

Co-Movement Gym: A is A Health Podcast S1E20 - Artificial Sweeteners; Diet Aid or Metabolic Menace!

People use artificial sweeteners because they know that sugar is unhealthy and can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and other problems. By using artificial sweeteners, these people are able to reduce their sugar consumption. But are artificial sweeteners actually healthy or not?

Many artificial sweeteners have been developed over the last 50 years, these include: sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Nutri-Sweet), saccharine (Sweet ‘n Low), stevia, erythritol, xylitol, and monk fruit extract.

We discuss our current use of sweeteners. Josh occasionally uses stevia, but he tries to limit it. When Josh wants a sweet food, he’ll typically bake with maple syrup or raw honey, but he limits these as well. Ricky also uses stevia on occasion, and allows natural sugars from fruit and other real foods in this diet. Andy uses a protein powder that is sweetened with stevia, occasional protein bars that contain erythritol, and he chews a xylitol-based gum sometimes because xylitol has been shown to improve dental health.

Josh discusses the GRAS list from the USDA. GRAS stands for “generally regarded as safe”. Although these items are considered generally safe, they are not necessarily health promoting.

We begin discussion of some of the possible health benefits of certain artificial sweeteners.

Xylitol is a sweetener that improves dental health. It has been shown to reduce cavities and promote a healthy oral microbiome. Andy uses products by Spry, a company that makes xylitol gum and toothpaste.

Monk fruit extract is another healthy sweetener. It contains several antioxidants and has an anti-inflammatory effect.

Chicory root is also a healthier sweetener. It is a soluble fiber which is beneficial to your microbiome. It can cause GI upset if over consumed, so you need to go easy on it.

Stevia is the final sweetener on our healthy list. It is not health promoting in any way, but it is also not unhealthy. It seems to be completely benign.

Why use these healthier artificial sweeteners? The main benefit is that you can avoid sugar. For people who struggle with sugar addiction or excessive carbohydrates in the diet, these healthier sweeteners can be used to reduce overall sugar and carb intake.

These healthier sweeteners are probably most beneficia for people with metabolic dysfunction, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Such people need to reduce sugar and other carbohydrates in order to keep their insulin low, and healthy artificial sweeteners are very useful for this purpose.

Ricky warns that sometimes people might over-consume products with artificial sweeteners because they think these products are healthy. So, you still need to be mindful of overall calorie consumption.

We begin discussion of the less natural, potentially unhealthy artificial sweeteners.

Sucralose (Splenda) is an artificial sweetener that is heavily used. The main concern with Splenda is that is significantly disrupts the microbiome. It has been shown to kill the good bacteria in our gut. Additionally, it may cause a small insulin release.

Aspartame (Nutri-Sweet) is the most used artificial sweetener. It has been associated with some cancers, but the association is weak. It is also linked to headaches and seizures, though very rare. One concern that some people have about aspartame is that it metabolizes into formaldehyde, this is true but the amount produced is so small that it may not matter.

Acesulfame potassium is another common artificial sweetener. Despite having negligible calories, it has been linked to weight gain in animal studies.

Saccharine (Sweet ‘n Low) is the last of our potentially unhealthy sweeteners. This was actually banned back in the 70’s over concerns of cancer, but then it was unbanned later on when further research placed it on the GRAS list.

Ricky points out that some studies have shown that rats who were fed artificial sweetened food for a period, tended to over-consume sugar-sweetened food later on because they became conditioned by the artificial sweeteners to associate sweet taste with lower calories. So, when they started consuming sugary foods again, they ate more than they should, because their brains didn’t anticipate the caloric content of actual sugar.

One last category to consider are sugar alcohols. These include sorbitol, mannitol, erythritol, etc. These are generally pretty benign, those they do cause GI upset (bloating and gas) in many people, especially in higher amounts.

Why do we avoid most artificial sweeteners? Josh points out that artificially sweetened products typically have other unhealthy ingredients such as vegetable oils, refined grains, and several artificial chemicals.

Other main concerns with artificial sweeteners. One is hyper-palatability. Artificial sweeteners are used to make foods taste as good as possible, which can lead to over-eating. Another concern is addiction to sweetness. Many people struggle with sugar addiction, and even if artificially sweetened products don’t contain sugar, they’re still very sweet and will not help you overcome your addition to sugar. Finally, artificially sweetened foods tend not to be nutritious. These foods are highly processed and lack the health-promoting benefits of nutrient-rich real food.

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