Everyone’s got something to say about synthetic sweeteners and it seems to be one of those topics in nutrition that garners a lot of attention. I think the main reason for the constant media coverage is because that research surrounding synthetic sweeteners is so contradictory. In the 1970’s a study on Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) found that it causes a significantly higher rate of bladder cancer in rodents which is where the controversy started. After this discovery, there were several failed attempts to ban the use of Saccharin and it has been found safe for humans.
So, why do they get such a bad wrap? Turns out that when our body ingests something sweet, we expect the number of calories to correlate. Very sweet in our mind means lots of calories. When we eat something with synthetic sweeteners which are way sweeter than sugar, our body anticipates a load of food preps our digestive system for a considerable caloric intake. It never actually materializes though and so we feel unsatisfied which actually leads to overeating down the line.
In fact, it’s been proven that people who consume artificial sweeteners gain more weight than those who eat plain sugar. The weight gain is the super unhealthy type as well that is centered around the midsection (adiposity) that causes heart disease, stroke, and issues with insulin uptake which eventually results in Type II diabetes.
Each sweetener on the market has a different chemical make up – here is how they are broken down:
Sucralose (Splenda) is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar (sucrose). This specific sweetener is made from sugar but the molecular arrangement is different. Instead of using 3 pairs of hydrogen and oxygen atoms sucralose uses 3 chlorine atoms. In recent studies conduct on animals, sucralose was found to decrease the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut by about 50% – no such studies have been preformed on humans to date.
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) is 180 times sweeter than sugar. When ingested aspartame breaks down into aspartic acid and phenylalanine which are amino acids – amino acids are the building blocks of protein so when ingested our body recognizes it as a protein and both can be digested. The other component of aspartame is methanol (our body doesn’t know what to do with this substance) which when further broken down becomes formaldehyde which is a recognized carcinogen. The catch here is that you would need to consume an exorbitant amount of aspartame for it to have a cancerous effect, however, FDA has received more complaints about aspartame than any other additive. Negative symptoms associated with aspartame include headaches, dizziness, mood changes, and memory loss.
Saccharine (Sweet’N Low) is 300 times sweeter than sugar. This is the sweetener associated with bladder cancer in animals, however, the evidence to support a similar effect in humans has not been substantiated. It’s made of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur atoms – when broken down our body doesn’t know what to do with the compounds and so it passes through our system undigested. Dextrose and maltodextrine are used to bulk up saccharine and have a quarter of the caloric energy as sugar so there are calories consumed with you ingest this sweetener.
Neotame is 13,000 times sweeter than sugar but in its chemical structure is basically the same thing as aspartame minus the phenylalanine. It’s considered same to consume.
So, while synthetic sweeteners are “safe” to consume I still don’t think they’re the answer – we know that they give people a false sense of security, messes with our metabolism, and cause a host of health issues related to weight gain. Check back soon for a post on healthier alternatives to refined table sugar. Being healthy doesn’t mean you can exude sweetness!
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