Artificial Sweeteners – Are they really safe? Part 1

I recall back in the 80’s going to my friend’s house and watching his mother drink one can of pop after another. I asked her if she was concerned about all the sugar she was drinking (I was 12). Then she showed me the can. It said sugar-free Diet Pepsi. I remember thinking what an ingenious idea it was to make a soft drink without sugar. That was until I tried it myself. The aftertaste was horrendous. What I was tasting was aspartame. A man-made chemical that was designed to mimic the taste of sugar, called an artificial sweetener.

They’re everywhere now, because artificial sweeteners have become almost as widely used as regular table sugar. And from diet drinks to reduced-sugar snack foods, artificial sweeteners have found their way into our food supply. When was the last time you were at a coffee shop or a restaurant and didn’t see the signature pink and yellow packets of artificial sweeteners sitting next to the sugar shaker?

We know that sugar is harmful. In excess it can be deadly, causing all kinds of problems from heart disease, diabetes to cancer. The idea of removing sugar from your diet entirely and replacing it with something that tastes sweet but is sugar-free sounds like excellent logic, but is it?  The vast majority of research has come to the conclusion that artificial sweeteners are equally as bad for you as table sugar. And there are some sweeteners that are probably worse!

Before I get into what artificial sweeteners are, it is equally important to understand what sugars are. Sugars come in many forms. Cane sugar, brown sugar, lactose, fructose, etc. What is important is that each one is a type of carbohydrate that ultimately breaks down into glucose inside your body. Its purpose is to supply your body with energy and raise your blood sugar. Every type of sugar has a caloric value, which is why the idea of filling your body with too much of it is a bad idea.

Low calorie sweeteners are a form of sugar alcohol. You will find them in chocolate bars, ice cream, gum, etc.  Some of the most common ones are xylitol and sorbitol. Food manufacturers like to use them because they only contain about half the calories of regular sugar and they don’t produce a dramatic spike in blood sugar, which is very appealing to consumers.  Xylitol is a good choice because it comes from plant fibres. Alternatively, sorbitol is derived from corn, which is a common allergen, pro-inflammatory, and 88% of the time it’s genetically modified. So that is one you should stay away from.

Next week I’ll get into artificial (zero calorie) sweeteners … how they are made, why you should avoid them, and some healthier alternatives.