Nutrition Wellbeing & Fitness

Going sugar free? Choose wisely, the devil is in the detail

Written by Mrs Josie Elles for Doctify

The Truth About Sugar

Most of us are getting lured in by sugar free product claims, but little are we being told what xylitol, stevia and the rest really are, and if they are any better for our health than sugar.

Since the market has become flooded with sugar substitutes, it’s difficult to tell what is truly healthy. Let’s first investigate if there is any substance to making a distinction between artificial and natural sweeteners.

Types of sugar substitutes

The most well known artificial sweeteners are aspartame (brand names NutraSweet and Equal) and sucralose (brand name Splenda). Aspartame is a combination of two amino acids joined together whilst Splenda is a sugar molecule on which three hydroxyl groups have been replaced with chlorine atoms. If that goes over your head, don’t worry: all you need to know is that they have been artificially engineered in a lab, hence the classification.

Being termed “natural”, one would hope xylitol and stevia are picked right of the field. Although xylitol occurs in small quantities naturally in many plants, extracting it on a commercial scale requires advanced chemical and biotechnological processes. The most commonly used crop for mass production purposes in our days seems to be corn.

Stevia is a plant that grows wild on the border of Brazil and Paraguay. It has for centuries been used to sweeten tea. The leaves contain steviosides, the compounds responsible for the popular taste. To meet the growing demand the plant is now commercially cultivated in many Asian countries. But the extraction process of the sweet compounds, as it seems, is still done via a traditional water/ alcohol extraction method.

In short, if you are looking for a truly natural, unrefined and accessible sweetener probably none of these will make your cut. In that case you might want to stick to raw organic honey, agave nectar, maple syrup or molasses. Not being extensively processed means they still contain a good amount of vitamins and minerals.

Impacts on your health

Production methods aside, this leads us to the next question: How do these sugar substitutes compare in terms of their health benefits? Whilst honey may be pure and nutritious, they do not share the same medical advantage that artificial sweeteners where originally designed for – to cut calories, control insulin release and hence be suitable for Type 2 Diabetes patients.

A 2014 study compared the effects of a high aspartame diet (25mg/ kg body weight/ per day) with those of a low aspartame diet (10mg/ kg body weight/ per day). To put things into perspective a can of diet soda typically contains 192mg, which means a 75kg person would have consumed the equivalent of 10 cans in the case of the high and 4 cans in the case of the low aspartame diet. The study found that “when consuming high-aspartame diets, participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on spatial orientation tests.”

In contrast to that xylitol, which has also been subject to extensive research, has been linked to a number of positive side effects such as the prevention of tooth decay and ear infections and its action as a prebiotic feeding the good bacteria in the gut and making it suitable for Candida suffers (yeast overgrowth).

Stevia in turn has been researched a lot less but one 2010 study found that the subjects saw a significant reduction in blood sugar levels and consequently insulin release after a meal containing stevia compared to meals containing aspartame and sucrose (table sugar).

What about sucralose? Sucralose seems to be the least well researched of the four, despite accounting for 35% market share of the $ 1.2 billion sweetener market in 2013 . The NHS states that most of the indigested sucralose passes through the body unabsorbed and that it has no effect on tooth decay, a lesser effect on blood sugar levels compared to table sugar and that its links to migraine are probably unjustified.

The verdict

In summary, whilst enjoying the occasional can of diet soda probably won’t do much harm, aspartame definitely should be eyed with suspicion. And whilst all others have their pros and cons, the good news is that, when consumed in moderation life can still be sweet.


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