Written by Jennifer Nelson
Should your family use artificial sweeteners? Yes or no? Should we use aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet), saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low), sucralose (Splenda), or acesulfame K to sweeten our foods and drinks? What about stevia? It is rare that I teach a nutrition class where someone doesn’t pose this question about artificial sweeteners.
Some say that you would be better off drinking a regular soda than a diet soda. Their argument is that the sugar added to the soda is more natural than most of the artificial sweeteners used in these beverages. Others have theorized that these foods and drinks with artificial sweeteners ultimately result in increased appetite and weight gain, contributing to diabetes and other obesity related complications.
In some ways it is true that plain white sugar is more natural than the “foreign” chemicals found in artificial sweeteners are to the body, but in reality, professional experience and wisdom shows that more health damage is done by the effects of added refined sugars in a person’s diet.
Foods and drinks with added refined sugars affect weight—often rapidly—and displace calories with a low nutrient food. Refined sugar has no vitamins at all, no minerals, no fiber, no antioxidants, no phytochemicals – no nutrients that help or protect the body. So, added refined sugar provides lots of empty calories (empty of nutrients) in a small volume – the person’s stomach gets less full, but the energy provided to the body from the calories reduces their appetite for more nutritious foods. The artificial sweeteners won’t do that because they are low energy sweeteners (also known as LES). They provide no calories or very low calories.
Studies are showing that LES used in place of refined sugars has beneficial effects on weight. Nadolsky and Nadolsky summarized some of the recent studies. Their analysis of multiple studies on the subject indicated that the diet version of a beverage resulted in less weight gain, and, in some cases, a bit more weight loss, when compared to the sugar added version. LES had results similar to water for weight loss and weight loss maintenance, maybe even a bit better. Sugar sweetened beverages were associated with coronary heart disease, whereas LES was not.
Now, there are many downsides to artificial sweeteners – first of all, they are foreign chemicals – foreign to the body, that is! Putting foreign chemicals in the body on a regular basis, especially in higher amounts, is not a good idea despite potential benefits.
Stevia is a more natural LES. It contains one or chemicals that are extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant. Stevia has no apparent side effects in smaller amounts, but may cause a person’s palate to prefer the high sweet flavor of these – making natural sweets such as fruit seem duller.
A better approach would be to use whole foods as natural sweets – such as fruit or dried fruit or pureed fruit, and let the palate and body become accustomed to the natural sweetness of fruit and the natural sweetness of vegetables. Yes, vegetables have sweetness to them! The natural sweetness of vegetables is often lost to the person whose tongue is accustomed to very concentrated sweets, whether caloric or non-caloric.
I like to leave the use of artificial sweeteners as an option for people who are transitioning off high sugar drinks and foods. For example, when a family is accustomed to consuming lots of high sugar drinks throughout the day, they are often rather shocked and taken aback at the recommendations to avoid them and to keep them out of the house. Using the diet versions helps them ease the transition to improving the quality of their family’s diet.
So, the best answer to the question “Should your family use artificial sweeteners?” would be neither yes or no. It is best to avoid using LES, but they can be helpful when making the transition from high sugar foods and drinks to water and whole foods that are naturally sweet. If you plan to use them, keep it to a limited time. Plan to buy less and less over time, and eventually eliminate them completely or almost completely.