As Agent Brassel said in Mission Impossible III: ‘It is unacceptable that chocolate makes you fat, but I’ve eaten my share, and guess what?’
Sugary diets can lead to weight gain and health problems; fact. That’s why no one should be having any more sugar beyond the recommended maximum seven teaspoons a day and even that sounds a lot.
Public Health England says sugar intake from a range of foods needs to be cut by a fifth by 2020 and part of that reduction includes reformulating sugary foods with sugar alternatives or artificial sweeteners which have a sweet taste but with fewer or no calories.
But the question is, are they healthier than that which they are set to replace?
What are ‘artificial’ sweeteners?
Sugar substitutes are food additives that provide a sweet taste similar to that of sugar, although containing significantly less food energy. Some artificial substitutes are found in nature, while others are produced synthetically.
Saccharin, sucralose, Ace K and aspartame, are intensely sweet, chemically created substitutes, ideal for use in low-calorie drinks and sugar-free mints, or gum.
There are lots of alternative sweeteners in thousands of foods and drinks products.
All with the aim of providing sweetness to replace sugar, and as a consequence provide fewer calories.
Alternatives, such as sorbitol and xylitol, are bulkier, more similar to actual sugar, and are used more as a sugar replacement in confectionery products.
If they are synthetic, does that make them unhealthy?
Many are, but some replacements are made from naturally occurring sweet substances, such as Stevia-based sweeteners, which are up to 150 times the sweetness of sugar, and are made from plant leaves.
By law, foodstuffs must be clearly labelled as to whether they contain low-calorie sweeteners, giving consumers choices as to whether or not to buy, although with the introduction of the Sugar Tax, the levy on producers and importers of soft drinks containing added sugar, and the removal of almost all drinks in vending machines and supermarkets is really a choice, is yet to be seen.
Will switching help me lose weight?
This is the $64000 question. Reducing calories from sugar can help with weight loss, although how much weight you lose, will depend on your diet and how much exercise you take, as well as your metabolism and genetic make-up.
The British Nutrition Foundation’s, Dr Stacey Lockyer, says swapping to artificially sweetened, low or sugar free foods and drinks may help some dieters.
“There are studies showing both in the short and long term that people who consume low-calorie versions in their diets take in fewer calories and do tend to lose weight. If you take drinks, for example, plain water is best – but some people might find it hard to switch from sugary drinks to water. They might want to consider having a diet or low-calorie drink if they like the taste.”
Are artificial sweeteners safe?
The European Food Safety Authority says that artificial sweeteners are carefully regulated and have passed the requisite checks for them to be deemed safe for use in foodstuffs.
Manufacturers have to provide evidence demonstrating that their sweetener:
- does not cause any adverse effects, including cancer
- does not affect reproduction
- is not stored within the body or metabolised into other potentially unsafe products
- does not cause allergic reactions
The Authority sets an acceptable daily intake, the maximum amount considered safe to ingest each day.
Taking the sweetener aspartame as an example, an “average” adult, approximate weight 70kg (11 stone) could drink up to 15 cans of a sugar-free fizzy drink or use 40 tsps. in their tea or coffee every day and still not exceed the limit. For a child (23kg) four cans of drink and 13 tsps.
Some research has claimed they make people hungrier and cause imbalance in blood-sugar levels, but these studies are inconsistent, “…large studies have now provided strong evidence that artificial sweeteners are safe for humans,” says Cancer Research UK.
Although there is a genuine concern that intense sweeteners could change our taste for naturally sweet foods, so that we start to find things such as fruit, less appealing.
Importantly, there are some groups who should not consume artificial sweeteners. Children for example before the age of three and people with a rare genetic condition called phenylketonuria should avoid aspartame as it can be harmful, but for pregnant women they are deemed safe.
It is also worth noting that for most of us, consuming a lot of artificial sweetener can cause flatulence and diarrhoea.
What about diabetes?
Sugar is a form of carbohydrate and as all carbohydrates affect blood-glucose levels, lowering your intake of sugar can help to keep those levels under control.
Diabetes UK says: “As sugar contributes no nutritive value, apart from carbohydrates and calories, it has ’empty calories’ and so is not good if you’re looking to manage your weight. This doesn’t mean that people with diabetes should have an entirely sugar-free diet. In fact, it’s almost impossible to have a sugar-free diet in the long term. And, it’s also worth remembering that products labelled ‘sugar-free’ aren’t necessarily low-calorie.”