Artificial sweeteners – are they good or bad?
There are claims that artificial sweeteners can cause cancer, affect your blood sugar and harm your gut bacteria, yet many people use them as a means to reduce their sugar intake and lose weight. Interestingly, there has not been a reduction in obesity or chronic disease since artificial sweeteners have become popular.
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that are added to some foods and beverages to make them taste sweet.
They provide a taste that is similar to sugar but are several thousand times sweeter so only very small amounts are required. For this reason, they are considered low in calories.
Our tongues are covered with many taste buds and receptors so when we eat the molecules in the food interact with our taste buds and a signal goes to the brain allowing us to identify the taste. Sugar molecules speak to the taste receptors for sweetness which in turn allow our brains to identify the sweet taste. Artificial sugar molecules are similar enough to fit these receptors, but they provide a sweet taste without added calories. The only problem here is that it doesn’t reduce sweet cravings. The brain still receives constant sugar signals which keeps it wanting more. They also don’t activate the food reward pathways that make us feel satisfied after we’ve eaten, so can cause us to feel hungry all the time or have continual cravings for sugar.
Not only do artificial sweeteners confuse the brain’s signal for sugar, they can also disrupt the good bacteria in the gut.
Sugar free gum is said to help with dental hygiene because it kills off the bacteria in the mouth, so bacteria further down the digestive tract could also potentially be affected. Blood sugar control can be negatively affected with long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners.
Consumed in moderation, artificial sweeteners are unlikely to do much harm and may be a good alternative when trying to reduce calories. They should however be used as a way of reducing total sugar consumption over the long-term rather than a replacement for sugar. The below table shows healthier options for sugar replacement. Coconut sugar is also a good alternative if used in moderation.
Listen to my interview with Brad Kirsten from Radio Cape Pulpit on 17 December to learn more.
Listen to my next interview on Thursday at 7.45am