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The Not-So-Sweet Side of Sugar Substitutes

The Not-So-Sweet Side of Sugar Substitutes

We have spoken a little bit about artificial sweeteners in the past, but wanted revisit this topic since they are once again in the news. Pepsi recently switched from using aspartame (Equal and Nutrasweet) to sucralose (Splenda) in a few of their beverage formulations as more consumers are becoming concerned about the safety of aspartame, mainly its link to cancer. Artificial sweeteners are used in various food products and beverages as a means to reduce extra calories in the diet, however, several recent studies are finding that these non-caloric sweeteners may pose other health risks related to glucose intolerance and your gut microbiota.

For example, one study found that sucralose consumption led to increased insulin and glucose levels in obese participants who did not normally consume non-nutritive sweeteners. Another study looked at consumption of various artificial sweeteners including saccharin, sucralose and aspartame and found similar results regarding glucose intolerance, but also found that these sweeteners may alter the gut microbiome. The study observed healthy participants who consumed saccharin daily for one week and found that the majority of the participants developed poorer glycemic responses and had altered intestinal microbiota.

These same researchers did other studies with a larger cohort and concluded that regular consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners was “positively correlated with intestinal microbial changes and multiple clinical parameters, including glucose intolerance and weight.” Dietary habits play a major role in gut composition and function, and the current research shows “that dietary sugar alternatives meant to stave off the risk of obesity and diabetes may actually increase disease risk due to microbial alterations.”

While these artificial sweeteners may help individuals with calorie control and weight loss in the short term, more and more findings suggest these sweeteners should be used with caution. Artificially sweetened drinks should not be a replacement for water, but if you find yourself wanting something a little sweet here are some simple suggestions for healthier alternatives to help quell your sweet beverage cravings:

  • Try naturally sweet herbal teas with cinnamon, citrus or vanilla. Teas also have the bonus of containing polyphenols such as flavonoids, tannins and catechins that act as antioxidants.
  • Still want to get your bubbly carbonated beverage fix? No problem! Try muddling your favorite fresh or frozen fruit in a glass with some fresh herbs such as mint, then strain over ice and add some plain seltzer water.
  • Vegetable juices can be another great naturally sweet beverage option, however to keep the sugar lower, make sure that the first few ingredients are vegetables and not fruit or fruit juice.

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