Are low calorie sweeteners bad for your health?

Food and drink that substitute low calorie sweeteners for sugar should in theory help you to lose weight and help to prevent diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, but do they?

New research has discovered that people who regularly consume low – calorie sweeteners tend to gain weight and be at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease compared to those that do not.

What are low calorie sweeteners?

Low calorie sweeteners are food additives that provide a sweet taste with fewer calories. There are two main types of low calorie sweeteners: bulk sweeteners and intense sweeteners.

Bulk sweeteners replace sugar in food especially confectionery and chewing gum. You will see them listed on food labels as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. They can trigger gastrointestinal side effects and should be eaten with caution in small quantities.

Intense sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar and are calorie free. Examples you will see on UK food labels are: acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, Stevia, and sucralose which are many times sweeter than common table sugar.

Intense sweeteners are used to provide sweetness in foods such as yogurt, and sugar free diet drinks. These sweeteners have a different ‘mouth feel’ to sugar and most have an aftertaste.

Why might low calories sweeteners be bad for health?

There are several theories which might explain the negative effects of low calorie sweeteners on health.

Artificial sweeteners may weaken the normal response to the arrival of food. The body receives a signal that there is a sweet taste but appetite is not suppressed by the usual appetite supressing hormones which kick in when sugars are consumed. This can lead to overeating and weight gain.

Another theory suggests those who consume large amounts of sweeteners also produce less of the hormone which stimulates insulin secretion which could lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Sweeteners may also alter the bugs in our gut which are involved in regulating digestive and metabolic health. This can reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin and lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes.

Nutritional foods that are less sweet—such as fruits and vegetables—may become unappetizing by comparison to the intense sweeteners and the overall quality of the diet may decline.

How can you manage a sweet tooth?

Studies have shown that drinking small amounts of natural, unsweetened fruit juice does not have the same effect on metabolism as artificially flavoured drinks. The sugars in fruit juice have a natural appetite supressing effect. Fruit and fruit juice can be diluted with plant milks, like Oatdrink to make delicious smoothies.

Naturally occurring sugars found in whole fruit and sweet tasting vegetables (like carrots and beetroot) are bound up in the call walls of the plant and absorbed more slowly. Eating fresh, frozen and unsweetened tinned fruit can all be used to make desserts, snacks and drinks.

If you usually sweeten tea, coffee and other drinks with either sugar or a low calorie sweetener gradually reduce the amount added until you can manage without. Your palate can be trained.

Guidelines on sugar consumption

The latest government guidelines on the maximum amount of sugar in the diet state “

added sugars shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy you get from food and drink each day. This is about 30g of sugar a day for those aged 11 and over.”

Reading food labels

Check the nutritional information on food labels to find out how the food you eat is sweetened. Look for the "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)" figure on the nutrition label to see how much sugar the food contains for every 100g.

If a product has

  • more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g it is HIGH in sugar
  • 5g of total sugars or less per 100g it is LOW in sugar

The most commonly used low calorie sweeteners are:

  • acesulfame K
  • aspartame
  • saccharin
  • sorbitol
  • sucralose
  • stevia (steviol glycosides)
  • xylitol

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