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The Sweetener Paradox

Choose natural sugar substitutes


More and more studies show that non-nutritive sweeteners may promote weight gain. Choose natural sugar substitutes for a healthy sweet alternative.

More and more studies show that non-nutritive sweeteners may promote weight gain. Choose natural sugar substitutes for a healthy sweet alternative.

It’s only human to wish you could indulge in that luscious chocolate brownie without consequences—by nature, we prefer sweet tastes. The problem is that sweets usually contain a high number of calories, and tend to send the blood sugar skyrocketing: not exactly a picture of healthy eating.

The invention of non-nutritive sweeteners (NNSs) at the end of the 19th century, however, seemed to turn the sweetness-calorie equation on its head. Chemical substances such as saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, and sucralose taste sweet but have very few calories.

Thus, replacing dietary sugar with a low-calorie, high-intensity sweetener should enable a person to enjoy sweet-tasting treats while keeping energy intake under control. But can our taste buds and our waistlines really both win?

Maybe not

A growing number of scientific studies are showing, paradoxically, that the use of various NNSs may actually promote weight gain. Recent studies on rats, for example, showed that those consuming NNSs increased their food intake and gained more weight than those consuming calorie-rich glucose (sugar).

Human studies, too, are showing that low-calorie sweeteners may not be the diet-savers they are purported to be. One survey of over 78,000 women found that NNS users were more likely to gain weight than were non-users; a long-term study in Texas showed that people who consumed more artificially sweetened beverages were much more likely to be overweight or obese.

The exact mechanism by which low-calorie sweeteners lead to weight gain is still a scientific puzzle. One leading theory is that, by dissociating sweetness from calories, NNSs confuse the body’s regulatory mechanisms. That is, when a person tastes something sweet that contains few calories, the taste fails to evoke the normal psychobiological responses that serve to regulate energy balance and signal when to stop eating.

Another possible explanation for the association between NNSs and weight gain may be that artificial sweeteners change the intestinal environment and trigger inflammatory processes that are associated with metabolic disorders. While only a few animal studies have explored this hypothesis, it is plausible that a change in humans’ intestinal bacteria could promote fat storage and weight gain.

Finally, recently discovered sweet-taste receptors in the gut might explain the association of NNSs with weight gain. According to this theory, when certain gut receptors sense sugar, they trigger the release of hormones that stimulate insulin secretion and a feeling of satiety. Human studies have indicated that glucose, but not NNSs, may trigger these normal hormonal responses.

Whatever mechanism turns out to be responsible, one thing is already clear: the assumption that NNSs reliably promote weight loss needs to be seriously reconsidered.

Natural is sweet

The next time you have a hankering for a sweet substance, try one of these natural alternatives.

A chemically complex food with over 180 components, honey is a natural and highly versatile sweetener. Studies have shown that unpasteurized honey may be able to inhibit the effects of toxic substances present in the body. Honey is commonly drizzled over fruit, yogourt, or desserts and used in baking and cooking.

Stevia is a powdered extract that comes from a shrub called Stevia rebaudiana. Unlike other natural sweeteners, it is very low in calories. While not currently approved for use in foods sold in Canada, stevia can be sold as a health supplement as long as its label does not contain a health claim.

Coconut palm sugar
A natural sweetener from Southeast Asia, coconut palm sugar is low on the glycemic index, which makes it a good choice for people who are watching their weight and their glucose levels. Coconut palm sugar cooks, dissolves, and melts like regular sugar, but has a rich flavour similar to brown sugar. It is a rich source of potassium, zinc, and iron as well as vitamins C and B1.

Maple syrup
Maple syrup is a sweet substance derived from the sap of maple trees; it has fewer calories and a lower glycemic load than honey, and is a dietary source of manganese and zinc. Its distinctive earthy, sweet taste pairs perfectly with pancakes and waffles, but it is also commonly used as a sweetener in desserts and baked goods.

The sweetener low-down

Here’s the low-down on the NNSs currently approved for use in Canada:

Sweetener Sold as Constituents Notes
saccharin Hermesetas

the oldest NNS; can be produced either from toluene and chlorosulphonic acid, or from methyl anthranilate

may be sold in pharmacies for direct consumer use only; must be labelled with a statement that continued use may be injurious to health, and that it should not be used by pregnant women except on a physician’s recommendation
cyclamate Sucaryl, Sugar Twin, or Sweet’N Low can refer to one of three chemical compounds: cyclamic acid, sodium cyclamate, or calcium cyclamate may be sold directly to consumers in Canada with a label advising that the product should only be used on the advice of a physician
aspartame Equal; Nutrasweet chemical combination of two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) and methanol approved for use in Canada since 1981; found in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum; should be restricted by individuals with an inherited disorder of phenylalanine metabolism called phenylketonuria
acesulfame-potassium not available for consumer purchase but may be added to products by food manufacturers chemically derived type of potassium salt relatively recently introduced NNS; often used in combination with other sweeteners to mask its slightly bitter aftertaste
sucralose Splenda synthetic chemical made by chemically reacting sugar with chlorine present in a variety of manufactured foods and is also sold as a table-top sweetener
neotame not yet widely used in food products made from the same two amino acids that are used to make aspartame, but because of its greater chemical stability, it does not result in phenylalanine being released into the body approved for use in Canada since 2007


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