The truth about sweeteners
Xylitol, aspartame, sucralose – their names are suited to lifeforms found on Uranus. But sweeteners aren’t as bad as they sound. ‘Often having no or low calories and/or being metabolised significantly slower than sugars, they may help to stabilise blood glucose levels while contributing zilch to energy intake,’ explains Dr Warren Bradley, sports nutrition specialist.
In fact, speak to many health experts and they’ll argue that sugar alternatives are at least part of the antidote for our sugar-ridden culture. Public Health England advises that we should not consume more than 5% of our daily dietary energy from sugar – but we’re currently consuming 12-15%. ‘This is where the use of low-calorie sweeteners comes in,’ suggests Dr Bradley.
GP Dr Dawn Harper says that low- or no-calorie sweeteners can be the simple solution to managing sugar levels while helping to maintain taste. ‘Some of my patients worry that using sweeteners might increase their cravings for sweet foods, or that sweeteners are not recognised by their appetite sensations and could therefore lead to an overall increase in calorie intake,’ says Dr Harper. ‘However, research over three decades has shown that this is not the case.’
And sugar is worth substituting. For a start, it can lead to us consuming extra calories that our bodies aren’t as good at sensing, which then encourages the body to store more fat. Sugar also damages our teeth and as it makes food more palatable, many of us can be tempted to eat sugary foods in excess. Alongside weight gain, sugar can contribute to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, too. But don’t just take our word for it. ‘It is widely accepted that consuming a high-sugar/high-fat diet can exacerbate weight gain and associated health conditions such as type 2 diabetes,’ says Dr Bradley.
Which sugar swap?
The alternatives are looking pretty sweet. Here are some key players:
SUCRALOSE An artificial sweetener made from sucrose, this is about 600 times sweeter than table sugar, so you only need tiny amounts, and smaller amounts means fewer calories. It’s popular in baked products as it’s heat-stable – whereas many other artificial sweeteners lose their flavour at high temperatures. This means you don’t need much of it to make something tasty.
ASPARTAME Around 200 times sweeter than sugar, this common sweetener features in a variety of food products including some BCAA drinks. Despite rumours claiming that it increases risk of cancer, human epidemiological studies (which look at disease occurrence at population level) have shown no such link.
SACCHARIN This zero-calorie sweetener that has been around for decades is 200-700 times sweeter than table sugar. It pops up in everything from medicines to jams.
XYLITOL Derived from the fibres of plants including berries, mushrooms, birch bark and corn husks, this natural polyol is used as a sugar alternative as it has two-thirds the calories of sugar. However, as it is not well absorbed, it can have a laxative effect if consumed in large quantities.
STEVIA This new-generation sweetener is made from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a herb that grows in South America. It’s 300 times sweeter than sugar, but classed as zero-calorie despite having a calorie content, as you don’t need to use a lot of it, and it has no effect on blood sugar.
Artificial versus natural
‘Low-calorie sweeteners are considered safe, but there is limited conclusive evidence to encourage or discourage their use on a regular basis,’ says Dr Bradley. ‘Typically, sweeteners can be used as sugar alternatives in beverages such as teas or coffees, but their use can be extended to any food commonly enhanced by sugar – for example, Greek yoghurt, quark, milkshakes, porridge and mousse, to name just a few. It’s especially convenient for the calorie-conscious who have a sweet tooth.’
‘Natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup are rapidly digested, elevating blood sugar and contributing to overall energy intake,’ says Dr Bradley. ‘Conversely, some low-calorie sweeteners lack the vitamins and minerals found in their natural counterparts. Where calorie restriction is important, low-calorie sweeteners may be beneficial. Otherwise, natural sugars can be consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet.’