The evils of sugar have made headlines in recent years, but it is still in everything from salad dressing to pasta sauce to peanut butter. It’s true that with its high glycaemic index, sugar contributes to a risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and many other health problems. But are artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes really better? Here we compare different sweeteners to understand the health risks and benefits they involve.
Aspartame is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners, and like most others it is free from calories, making it a favourite of people wanting to lose weight. However, several studies have suggested that aspartame brings its own list of health risks, such as lower levels of HDL (good cholesterol), a factor in heart disease. Side effects like dizziness and headaches have also been reported, and what’s more, studies have shown that it does not actually reduce calorie intake or body weight.
Saccharin is another artificial sweetener that is frequently used in sugar-free products. It is impossible for your body to digest, which is why it can be marketed as zero calory. Although this means it can support weight loss, saccharin can also be harmful to your health. Several studies have found that it can lead to alterations in the gut biome, and good gut bacteria is essential for digestive health, a functioning immune system, and more.
Agave nectar is a syrup refined from the agave plant. It is often touted as a low-GI but still natural alternative to sugar, but it comes with its own health risks. Although it is very low in glucose, its main sweetening effect comes from fructose. If too much is consumed, fructose is associated with a higher risk of fatty liver disease and insulin resistance, as well as an increase in LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglyceride levels, both major factors in heart disease.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol extracted from birch trees and is very common as a sweetener in sugar-free toothpastes and chewing gums. Like agave nectar, it is low in glucose, but it doesn’t have correspondingly high levels of fructose. In fact, it may have some health benefits and you can enjoy these and other kinds of bonuses when you sign up now. Some of the benefits include increased bone volume and collagen production.
But don’t start wolfing it down yet, because it can cause digestive disturbances or trigger symptoms in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It may be one of the healthiest sweeteners on this list, but it’s best to exercise caution.
Everyone’s bodies are different, and you should consult your doctor about which sweetener may work best for you, particularly if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes. That said, the healthiest option is to limit your consumption of all kinds of sweetener as much as possible. A spoon in your coffee is one thing, but processed foods contain dangerous amounts of sweeteners. You can’t have your cake, eat it too, and not suffer the consequences!