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The Sweet Truth: How Sugar Substitutes Affect Your Health

The Sweet Truth: How Sugar Substitutes Affect Your Health

May 24, 2023

When a sugar craving hits, it’s hard to ignore and resist the urge to indulge. However, consuming too much sugar can negatively affect your health, causing many people to turn to artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes as lower-calorie alternatives. But are these sweeteners healthier for us? Here’s what you need to know about artificial sweeteners and how they affect us.  

Sugar, sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate found naturally in many foods, like fruits, vegetables and dairy products. It’s also added to many processed foods and drinks, including candy, soft drinks and desserts. When we eat sugar, our body breaks it down into glucose, which our cells use for energy. 

Sugar substitutes are substances added to foods to replace traditional sugar. They’re typically lower in calories and have less of an effect on blood sugar levels than regular sugar. Some sugar substitutes are natural—like honey, agave and stevia—and others are artificial. 

“Artificial sweeteners are a group of sugar substitutes used in a wide range of food and drinks, including soft drinks, desserts and processed foods,” said Diana Wind, Registered Dietitian at Inspira Health. “Most artificial sweeteners are created with chemicals in a lab, designed to mimic the same sweet taste of sugar but with fewer calories.” 

Types of artificial sweeteners

Some of the most common artificial sweeteners include: 

  • Aspartame (Equal), which is commonly used in soft drinks, chewing gum and desserts 
  • Sucralose (Splenda), found in many processed foods and baked goods 
  • Saccharin (Sweet n’ Low), commonly found in diet drinks and chewing gum 

Sugar alcohols are another category of artificial sweeteners that food manufacturers use to sweeten packaged and processed foods. Some of the most common sugar alcohols are: 

  • Erythritol
  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

How artificial sweeteners affect your body

“Sugar stimulates areas of the brain connected to addiction and increases your blood sugar,” said Wind. “This surge is followed by a blood sugar drop, causing you to crave even more sugar and carbohydrates creating an addictive loop that’s difficult to break free of.” Artificial sweeteners can be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, overwhelming your nervous system with dopamine. 

While some artificial sweeteners can help reduce calorie intake when used in moderation, there are some potential health risks to consider. Some studies have linked artificial sweetener consumption to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Consuming large amounts of artificial sweeteners can also be bad for your teeth and disrupt the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut and negatively affect your immune system. 

Recent research has linked the sugar alcohol erythritol to an increased risk of a major cardiac event, such as a heart attack or stroke. These findings call into question whether other sugar alcohols are safe, and more comprehensive studies are needed to understand how these artificial sweeteners affect the body.

Limiting your intake of sugar and artificial sweeteners

“If you’re looking for a healthier alternative to sugar, your safest bet is avoiding artificial sweeteners and choosing a natural option, like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar or stevia,” said Wind. “Natural sugars are still carbohydrates, so if you are diabetic be sure to be mindful of your intake. Many fruits, including bananas, mangoes and pineapple also contain natural sugars.” Our bodies don’t process natural sugars as fast as table sugar or artificial sugars, so you can enjoy them without overwhelming your system. 

Inspira offers interactive nutrition counseling for the entire family, helping you set and achieve goals that improve your overall health and wellness. Make an appointment with one of our registered dieticians and develop a nutrition strategy that fits into your lifestyle. 

Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA.

Topics: Nutrition, Diabetes, Cardiology & Heart Health