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What You Need to Know about
Low Calorie Sweeteners
It’s clear that too much added sugar is bad for us. There is a clear link between sugar and diseases such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver, and dental caries. Why not switch to low calorie sweeteners (LCS’s) to bypass all these problems? At first low calorie sweeteners seem like a good idea, but not so fast. We’ve summarized what you need to know about low calorie sweeteners including what they are, how to find them in order to avoid them, and why they are damaging your family’s health.
LCS's Cause Sugar Addiction
Sugar is well known to cause us to crave more sugar. It appears that LCS’s do the exact same thing if not more so. Many of us use LCS’s to limit calories, but prioritizing calorie consumption isn’t the answer. We may save on some meaningless calories, but in the process, we’ll develop a tendency to overeat and potentially damage internal organs. LCS’s may also cause an alteration of taste buds and food preferences, leading to sugar addiction. Recent estimates show that a whopping 25% of children regularly consume products with LCS’s.
LCS's Elicit an Insulin Response
Just as there are receptors on the tongue, there are receptors in the gut and pancreas. When LCS’ lock into the receptors in the pancreas, insulin is secreted into the blood and will cause sugar to be removed from the bloodstream. This will cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and trigger hunger, particularly for sugar. This can lead to weight gain and obesity. Studies show that LCS’s cause weight gain. If we substitute LCS’s with a beverage such as water or milk, we will lose weight and more importantly, improve our overall health.
LCS's Alter the Gut Microbiome
Breakdown (metabolism) of LCS’s into other compounds (or the complete lack thereof) may be harmful to our bodies. It may lead to a low-grade inflammation and leaky gut syndrome. Any substance that causes this type of change in our gut can lead to metabolic syndrome and weight gain that is not necessarily related to increased calories. Do keep in mind that an alteration in the gut microbiome can affect brain function, as they are interrelated.
The FDA on LCS’s
Unfortunately, studies show a correlation (not causation) between diet sweeteners and metabolic syndrome. Do diet sweeteners cause metabolic syndrome or people that have metabolic syndrome drink diet sweeteners? We are not sure. The question is do these diet sweeteners perform as they claim? Are they safe?
The FDA has given low calorie sweeteners a GRAS (generally regarded as safe) rating. A GRAS approval means that the product does not cause cancer in laboratory studies of their effects on animals. However, trans fats were once regarded as a GRAS substance. Also, recently in 2018, the FDA removed 7 synthetic flavoring substances that are linked to multiple cancers in animals. What else do we not know?
One may argue that since LCS’s are approved by the FDA, they must be safe. This is partially true. For the short term, there is no clear evidence that these LCS’s are dangerous. Long term effects are not part of the FDA’s charter, and they punt off the responsibility to the food industry. The food industry has no incentive to do these studies as they are very costly. Moreover, if the studies they conduct have negative results, they will be forced to remove their product from the shelves. Therefore, these studies usually aren’t done and are unlikely to be done in the future.
What about LCS Consumption in Kids?
In general, it is best to avoid giving kids LCS’s completely. If not completely, they should consume as little as possible. LCS’s should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation as these substances are passed on to the developing baby. The fact is, we just don’t know the long term effect on children’s growth and development. We need more rigorous studies and more time to determine their safety.
What Are the Different Types of Low Calorie Sweeteners?
LCS’s are divided into three categories: artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and natural sweeteners. Unfortunately, LCSs’ are often tricky to recognize as there are many names for them and they can be difficult to recognize on food labels.
We have included an overview of the three different LCS’s below as well as a handy chart with the summaries of the both common types of LCS’s and their effects.
Artificial sweeteners include aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet‘N Low), and sucralose (Splenda).
In order to taste sweet, we have receptors on our tongues that signal “sweet” to the brain. The better the substance fits into the receptor (like a lock and key) the sweeter the taste. Food engineers can make substances to tightly fit these receptors and can engineer them to be tens of thousands of times sweeter than sugar. Moreover, many of these LCS’s are mixed with additives to make the aftertaste more palatable. Metabolism of these products is completely different from the metabolism of sugar. This processing may lead to a myriad of health disturbances, both known and unknown.
We should avoid artificial sweeteners at all costs. There are studies that have shown their possible link to cancer. Using artificial sweeteners to limit calories from sugar isn’t the right approach. It doesn’t give us a hall pass to drink sugary beverages.
Low Calorie Sugar Alcohols
Next we have sugar alcohols like sorbitol and erythritol which aren’t as bad as artificial sweeteners. They are “natural,” however they can cause serious GI disturbances such as bloating, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea. Xylitol in gum or mints can be helpful for our dental hygiene. Aside from the usage for dental health, you should limit sugar alcohols from your diet as much as possible.
Low Calorie Natural Sweeteners
Now, for the hardest one to evaluate. What about natural sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit and allulose?
There is often a misunderstanding that if something is natural it must be good for us and our little ones. Not so fast. Many poisonous substances are natural or naturally derived, including cocaine and heroin.
We just don’t know the long term effects of these natural sweeteners on the growth and development of our kids. We do know that all the LC’S can alter our kids’ taste buds. Remember that stevia is 100 to 300 times sweeter than cane sugar. We also know that LCS’s can cause carb craving and eventual weight gain. Moreover, there is some evidence that LCS may cause glucose intolerance, metabolic dysfunction, and disturbances in the gut biome.
Our final verdict for now (stay tuned as we get more info) is to limit consumption of all LCS’s, including natural sweeteners like stevia.
If you need a little sweet in your life, prioritize fresh fruit first. Then consider using sweeteners like raw organic honey, maple syrup, molasses, and coconut sugar.
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