Artificial Sweeteners vs. Natural Sweeteners: Which is Better for You?
When you’re craving something sweet nowadays there is an unlimited supply of choices to choose from. Everything from chocolate, cookies, brownies, cake, granola, and even cereals contain the sugar we are craving, but what these foods are sweetened with can vary from brand to brand and the source of the sweeteners can make a difference when it comes to your health. Knowing what you are grabbing off the grocery store shelf when that craving hits is important!
There are sweeteners from natural sources such as fruits, honey, and maple syrup that contain natural sugars and calories and then there are artificial sweeteners which are man-made and usually calorie free to entice consumers who are looking for those sugar free snacks.
What are artificial sweeteners?
So what are artificial sweeteners anyway? Artificial sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners, are a sugar alternative that has been chemically produced in a lab. These sweeteners are low calorie and often multiple times sweeter than table sugar. Because these sweeteners are so much sweeter than table sugar the amounts needed in recipes are much smaller than table sugar (anywhere from 200-20,000 times less). Since companies are using such a small amount in their products it allows them to reduce the calories in their products and label them sugar free as it contributes no added sugar and no calories to the recipe.1
Artificial sweeteners are found in many "sugar free" products like soda, gums, and sauces as well as lower calorie desserts and other foods, take Splenda for example.
Artificial sweeteners vs. natural sweeteners
So we know what artificial sweeteners are, what exactly is the difference between artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners though?
Well for one, artificial sweeteners are not naturally found in nature so they are typically manufactured or processed by chemical synthesis whereas natural sweeteners are found naturally on Earth from plant sources such as beet or cane.
Most artificial sweeteners don't contribute to calorie intake making them ideal for those looking to reduce their caloric intake through added sugars. While some natural sweeteners are still considered an added sugar, like honey and maple syrup, they are way less processed and a more natural option than standard table sugar, making them appealing for those who are looking to support their sugar cravings with minimal processed sugars. Natural sweeteners can also contain small amounts of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Some, however, contain a decent amount of calories from their naturally occurring sugar so use sparingly when you do choose these sweet foods. We use monk fruit and steviol glycosides, which are both low calorie and don’t affect blood sugar levels.
How do artificial sweeteners affect the body?
While the idea of artificial sweeteners sound appealing, there is mounting evidence that these manufactured sweeteners could be causing more harm than good to your health.
It’s not very well known but our brains and bodies actually have different responses to artificial sweeteners and natural sugars due to their different chemical makeup and properties. Consuming sugar (found in foods like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose)) activates the brain's reward system. This leads to the release of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine but when artificial sweeteners are consumed, the brain only partially activates these reward pathways. Artificial sweeteners offer the sweet flavor our bodies crave, but not the calories we need for survival so our body becomes confused as to why its not receiving the nutrients it craves, just the flavor.2
Artificial sweeteners can retrain taste buds to crave more sweets as well. When we consume the non-nutritive sweeteners, our body will have a stronger desire for consistently sweeter and sweeter foods as you continue to consume them. As the body starts to adjust to these sweeter foods this can lead to the potential to over eat, reducing your intake of fruits and veggies (as they are not as sweet and satisfying to the body anymore), and becoming deficient in essential nutrients. This can lead to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, kidney damage and changes in the gut microbiome.3
These artificial sugar substitutes can cause other symptoms that range from headaches and migraines to weight gain and even more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease.4
How do artificial sweeteners affect gut health?
Non-caloric artificial sweeteners have been shown to wreak havoc on the gut microbiome which can cause “dysbiosis” or an imbalance in the bacteria in our gut. Dysbiosis can result in gas, bloating, acid reflux or indigestion and possibly even have more serious impacts resulting in gastrointestinal diseases or widespread inflammation.
A recent study found that the consumption of non-nutritive artificial sweeteners influences the body's ability to manage blood sugar due to changes in the composition and function of the gut microbiota. Researchers found that there were significant differences in the populations of bacteria before and after regular consumption of artificial sweeteners, particularly for participants who consumed sucralose and saccharin. The control groups that ingested glucose or the placebo did not experience changes in their microbiomes from the start to the end of the study. The participants who were consuming the artificial sweeteners also showed larger spikes in blood glucose than those in the glucose control group, suggesting that those sweeteners may push the body towards glucose intolerance.5
Another study looking at 381 men and women found that those who used artificial sweeteners were more likely than those who did not to be overweight. They were also more likely to have impaired glucose tolerance which may be linked to the changes of bacteria within the gut.6
More than 90 percent of the bacterial species in the gut come from just two subgroups—Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. A study looking at mice found that obese mice had 50 percent fewer Bacteroidetes bacteria and 50 percent more Firmicutes bacteria than normal mice. When researchers transferred Firmicutes bacteria into healthy mice the healthy mice started to gain weight and become fatter.6 The possible reason for this outcome in healthy mice is that the Firmicutes bacteria produced more enzymes that helped the animals extract more energy from their food, and the bacteria also manipulated the genes of the normal mice in ways that triggered the storage of fat rather than its breakdown for energy. While everyone's gut microbiome is different these findings are a prime example of how artificial sweeteners can potentially play a role in changes of the human gut bacteria as well.6
Common artificial sweeteners
As you browse the grocery store aisles and glance at the ingredient lists it can become overwhelming trying to distinguish which ingredients are natural and which are artificial since sugar can be labeled under over 50 different names.
If you are wanting to pick out the artificial sweeteners on a label look for these most common ones approved by the FDA and has classified them under generally recognized as safe (GRAS) category in the United States7:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sweet One, Sunett)
- Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
- Neotame (Newtame)
- Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
These can be found in foods ranging from protein bars, drinks, condiments, sauces, candy and desserts.
Natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners
If you are looking for alternatives to artificial sweeteners, consider looking for more natural sweeteners. Many natural sweeteners contain anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial effects. Raw honey, monk fruit, and stevia are examples of natural sweeteners that have antioxidant benefits and contain prebiotic oligosaccharides that can help promote healthy gut bacteria.
Natural Sweeteners include:
- Maple syrup
- Monk Fruit
There are also some natural sweeteners that are low calorie and sugar free on the market these days as well. If you are looking to keep your sugar intake to a minimum while also not putting your health at risk, stevia, monk fruit, and allulose are all great options and can replace regular sugar in a 1:1 ratio in baking.
If you’re looking for dessert or a sweet snack that won't spike your blood sugar try Zero Brands Ice cream bars which contain zero added sugars and zero artificial sweeteners!
This information is not intended to prevent, diagnose, prescribe, or treat any illness or condition, nor does it take the place of sound medical advice. You should always seek out your own medical care and determine the best diet and course of treatment for your unique health needs.