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The intense sweetness of artificial sweeteners might lead to an adjustment in our tastebuds to desire even sweeter foods. — AFP

Are artificial sweeteners really better than sugar?

Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are used to provide sweetness to food and beverages without adding significant calories.

They are chemically synthesised or derived from natural sources.They are also many times sweeter than regular sugar, so smaller amounts are needed to achieve the same level of sweetness.

Some common artificial sweeteners include:

  • AspartameThis is one of the most widely-used artificial sweeteners.It is made up of two amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid.Aspartame is commonly found in diet soft drinks, chewing gum and sugar-free products.
  • SucraloseThis is derived from sugar through a chemical modification.It is approximately 600 times sweeter than sugar, and is used in a variety of products, including baked goods, beverages and tabletop sweeteners.
  • SaccharinThis is one of the oldest artificial sweeteners.It is derived from a petroleum compound and is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar.Saccharin is often used in tabletop sweeteners, beverages and processed foods.
  • Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)Also known as E950, this high-intensity sweetener is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.It is often used in combination with other sweeteners, and can be found in a variety of products, including soft drinks, desserts and chewing gum.

No calories, less weight?

Artificial sweeteners provide sweetness without adding significant calories, which can be appealing for individuals aiming to reduce their caloric intake and manage their weight. However, the impact of artificial sweeteners on weight loss is still a subject of debate among experts.

On one hand, artificial sweeteners can help reduce calorie consumption because they provide sweetness without the added calories from sugar. By substituting high-calorie sugary foods and drinks with artificially-sweetened alternatives, you may lower your overall caloric intake, which can contribute to weight loss over time.

On the other hand, some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners might not have a significant effect on weight loss or could even be associated with weight gain. One theory is that the intense sweetness of artificial sweeteners may lead to an increased desire for sweet foods, potentially causing individuals to compensate for the reduced calorie intake by consuming more calories from other sources.

Several studies have explored the potential links between artificial sweeteners and health problems. While the findings are not conclusive and more research is needed, here are a few areas of concern that have been identified:

Weight gain and metabolic effects

Some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may disrupt the body’s natural mechanisms for regulating appetite and metabolism. They may alter the perception of sweetness, leading to an increased preference for sweeter foods and potentially contributing to weight gain over time.

For example, a study published in the journal Nature found that mice fed artificial sweeteners had altered gut microbiota, glucose intolerance and increased body weight, compared to those fed sugar.

Diabetes and insulin response

Artificial sweeteners are often marketed as suitable alternatives for individuals with diabetes because they do not raise blood sugar levels. However, research has shown mixed results regarding their effects on insulin response and glucose regulation.

Some studies indicate that artificial sweeteners may still stimulate insulin release, potentially affecting blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity.

Gut microbiota and digestion

The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in various aspects of health, including digestion, metabolism and immune function. Some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may alter the composition and diversity of gut bacteria, which could have implications for overall health.

Changes in the gut microbiota have been linked to metabolic disorders, inflammation, and even mental health conditions.

Cardiovascular health

Research has shown associations between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of cardiovascular (heart) events and metabolic syndrome.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found an association between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and a higher risk of obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Tips on reduction

Reducing your consumption of artificial sweeteners and sugar can be a positive step towards a healthier diet. Here are some strategies to help you cut back:

Read food labels

Start by checking food labels to identify products that contain artificial sweeteners or added sugars. Be aware of different names for sugar, such as high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, sucrose, dextrose and fructose. Aim to choose products with little or no added sugars or artificial sweeteners.

Gradually reduce sweetness

Reduce the amount of sweetener you add to your foods and beverages gradually. Over time, your taste buds will adjust to the reduced sweetness. For example, if you typically add two packets of sweetener to your coffee, try reducing it to one, then eventually eliminate it.

Choose whole foods

Focus on consuming whole, unprocessed foods as the foundation of your diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats can provide natural flavours and nutrients without added sugars or artificial sweeteners.

These foods can also help satisfy your cravings for sweetness due to their natural sweetness and fibre content.

Opt for natural sweeteners

If you desire sweetness, consider using natural sweeteners such as stevia, monk fruit extract, raw honey or pure maple syrup in moderation. Remember to still use them sparingly and be mindful of the overall calorie content.

Experiment with spices

Enhance the flavour of your meals with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract or cardamom. These spices can provide a subtle sweetness without the need for added sugar or sweeteners.

Drink water or unsweetened beverages

Choose water, herbal tea or unsweetened beverages as your primary sources of hydration. Avoid sugary drinks like soft drinks, energy drinks and sweetened juices, which can be significant sources of added sugars.

Be mindful of processed foods

Foods such as packaged snacks, baked goods and condiments, often contain hidden sugars and artificial sweeteners. Opt for whole, homemade alternatives whenever possible, allowing you to control the amount of sweeteners used.

Plan your meals and snacks

By planning your meals and snacks in advance, you can make conscious choices about the types and amounts of sweeteners you consume. Prepare meals at home using fresh ingredients to have better control over added sugars and artificial sweeteners.

Find healthier alternatives

Look for healthier alternatives to satisfy your sweet tooth. For example, instead of reaching for a sugary dessert, try enjoying a piece of fresh fruit, a small serving of dark chocolate, or a homemade treat with reduced sugar or natural sweeteners.

Naturally sweet

If you’re looking for alternatives to artificial sweeteners, there are several natural options you can consider. These choices may provide sweetness without the potential concerns associated with artificial sweeteners.

Here are a few alternatives:

  • SteviaThis is a plant-based sweetener that comes from the leaves of the stevia plant.It is intensely sweet and has zero calories.Stevia is available in various forms, including liquid drops, powder and granules.
  • Monk fruit extractThis is derived from the monk fruit, a small melon-like fruit.It provides sweetness without calories and is available in different forms, including liquid and powder.
  • Raw honeyThis is a natural sweetener that contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.It is sweeter than sugar, so you can use less of it.However, it’s important to note that honey still contains calories and should be consumed in moderation.
  • Maple syrupThis is a natural sweetener made from the sap of maple trees.It contains some minerals and antioxidants.Opt for 100% pure maple syrup without added sugars or artificial flavours.
  • FruitIncorporating whole fruits into your diet can add natural sweetness to foods and beverages.Fruits contain natural sugars, along with fibre, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds.You can use mashed bananas, apple sauce or pureed dates as natural sweeteners in baking recipes, or to sweeten oatmeal, yoghurt and smoothies.
  • SpicesCertain ones can enhance the sweetness of foods without adding any calories or artificial ingredients.Cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom are examples of spices that can provide a sweet taste to dishes.Adding these spices to your recipes can help reduce the need for additional sweeteners.
  • Unsweetened or minimally-processed foodsChoosing whole, unprocessed foods can help reduce the need for added sweeteners altogether.By opting for fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, you can enjoy the natural flavours of these foods without relying heavily on added sugars.

Remember, making gradual changes and adopting a balanced approach is key. It’s important to listen to your body, honour your cravings in moderation, and find what works best for you in creating a sustainable and healthier relationship with sweeteners and sugar.

Consulting a healthcare professional or registered dietitian can provide personalized guidance tailored to your specific needs and goals.

By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 03 Jul 2023

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