The War on Sugar: Artificial vs. Natural Sweeteners

March 10, 2017

To commemorate National Nutrition Month, we asked Jennifer Doane, a registered and licensed dietician who provides services to New Vitae Wellness and Recovery residents, to address a hot topic within the field.  Jennifer quickly identified the challenges associated with artificial and natural sweeteners.  Both in her individualized services to New Vitae residents and in her private practice through Advantage Nutrition and Wellness, many people question the benefits associated with one sweetener option versus another.  Jennifer clarified the differences between these sweeteners and makes suggestions for your health:

We as consumers are constantly bombarded with information on sugar, is it an enemy? Is it healthy? Should I drink that diet soda rather than the regular one? It all seems confusing and you don’t know what to believe, so let’s break it down for you!

Artificial sweeteners, also known as high intensity sweeteners or nonnutritive sweeteners by the FDA, are sweeteners that are significantly sweeter compared to sugar and have little to no calories. Some of them contain calories but because only small amounts are needed in food due to its intense sweetness, it calculates to very little added calories. Examples of these as defined by the FDA would be saccharin (Sweet N’ Low), aspartame (Equal), acesulfame potassium (Sunett), sucralose (Splenda), neotame (Newtame), and advantame. Today’s Dietitian also lists Stevia, Luo han guo, and sugar alcohols under this category as well.

Natural Sweeteners, also known as nutritive sweeteners, add calories to food and can be naturally occurring (such as in foods like dairy, fruit and vegetables) or added sugars like sucrose which is white table sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, confectioner’s sugar and unrefined sugar from sugar cane juice. They’re all the same, just processed differently. Other examples of added sugar include agave nectar, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup or corn syrup solids, dextrose, fructose, honey, inverted sugar, maple syrup and molasses.

So which one is healthier or better? Let’s see what the science is saying! The FDA does recognize these artificial sweeteners as GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe.  In regards to health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and cancer, according to Mayo Clinic, artificial sweeteners due to their low caloric value, may benefit those with diabetes or weight loss. Although there have been studies suggested in this Harvard Health Publication article showing greater risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has an Evidence Analysis Library that states studies showing artificial sweeteners have no effect on blood sugar, cholesterol or blood fat in adults with type 2 diabetes.   Harvard Health Publications also stated that the link to artificial sweeteners and cancer has been ruled out but we still do not know the long term effects of these sweeteners.

The findings on weight gain and cravings are also just as variable. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic’s Evidence Analysis Library further states artificial sweeteners have no effect on appetite in children, adolescents or adults. However, Harvard Health Publications reports many studies suggest we crave more sweets and gain weight because of them. But the Evidence Analysis Library states for adults, replacing the sugar substitutes for sugary foods and drinks could help prevent weight gain and promote weight loss. Harvard Health Publications explains that weight gain can come from constant use of artificial sweeteners because it accustoms your taste buds to a higher level of sweetness. Consequentially less sweet but nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables may not be as appealing. Therefore, the thinking could be people may justify that extra piece of cake because they’re not consuming calories through their diet soda. This thought process can be just as harmful when not consuming nutritious foods in their diet.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a position paper on this topic as well and recommends that nonnutritive and nutritive sweeteners that are safe for consumption can fit into daily intakes (including personal preferences and health goals) that follow the federal dietary guidelines such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Dietary Reference Intakes.

So what’s the take home message? Everything in moderation. We may not know the long term effects of nonnutritive sweeteners, but as of right now they are classified as safe to consume by the FDA. Nutritionally speaking, don’t skip out on that orange which is full of nutritive but natural sugars for that 0 calorie diet soda that has no nutrients. Focus on a healthful eating pattern and enjoy sweeteners in moderation.




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