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The Sweet Truth About Artificial Sweeteners
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The Sweet Truth About Artificial Sweeteners

From our first candy as children, many of us develop a strong, addictive-like affinity for sweetness. Sugar, often the main ingredient we associate with this craving, is present in the vast majority of the foods and beverages we consume today. The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has notably increased over the decades, rising by almost 150 litres per person from 1950 to 2000. This spike in sugar intake correlates with a significant rise in weight gain and obesity levels.

The Rise of Artificial Sweeteners

The question then arises: how can we enjoy the sweetness and curb our cravings without the sugar and associated risk of obesity? The answer lies in artificial sweeteners – substances that promise all the sweetness with none of the calories.

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are far sweeter than regular sugar, allowing them to be used in much lower quantities to achieve the desired level of sweetness. They are commonly found in foods and beverages labeled as “sugar-free” or “diet,” mimicking the sweetness of sugar but with virtually no calories.

Popular Artificial Sweeteners

There are several artificial sweeteners extensively researched and approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), including:

  • Saccharin (Sweet N’ Low)
  • Aspartame (Equal)
  • Neotame (Nutrasweet)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Acesulfame-K
  • Stevia

Saccharin

Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener created and gained popularity during World War I as a sugar substitute. Although its popularity waned when sugar became affordable again, it resurged during the obesity epidemic. Initial studies suggested a link between saccharin consumption and bladder cancer, but these findings were based on animal studies that do not necessarily apply to humans. Subsequent research has not found a significant link between saccharin and cancer in humans.

Aspartame

Aspartame is broken down into three compounds in the body: phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. Despite early concerns linking aspartame to brain tumors, subsequent research has found no significant evidence supporting these claims. In fact, many studies have shown aspartame to be safe for human consumption.

Stevia

Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. It is much sweeter than sugar and has zero calories. Studies have shown that stevia can provide health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure in hypertensive patients and helping regulate blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetics.

The Impact of Sugar on Weight Gain

Sugar is a key factor in the obesity epidemic, providing high energy intake without satiating hunger. The average 600ml bottle of soft drink contains 16 teaspoons of sugar and about 1,000 unnecessary kilojoules. This far exceeds the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of around 12 teaspoons of sugar per day for the average adult. Regular consumption of sugary drinks can lead to significant weight gain as people often don’t account for these extra kilojoules.

Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Loss

Artificial sweeteners offer a way to enjoy sweetness without the added calories. While some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners can help with weight loss, the evidence is mixed. Some research indicates that artificially sweetened beverages can reduce calorie intake and promote weight loss, while other studies suggest they might lead to overeating and weight gain. The discrepancies can be attributed to differences in study designs and potential biases.

Health Concerns and Safety

Despite concerns about the safety of artificial sweeteners, most research does not support claims that they are harmful. Regulatory bodies like the FDA and FSANZ regularly review the safety of these sweeteners and have approved their use within specified limits. For instance, aspartame has been linked to a possible increase in liver cancer risk, but only when consumed in extremely high amounts. The acceptable daily intake of aspartame is 40 mg per kilogram of body weight, meaning a 70 kg person would need to consume more than 14 cans of diet soft drink daily to exceed this limit. Most Australians consume well below this amount. FSANZ sets and regularly reviews acceptable levels for all types of additives, including artificial sweeteners, ensuring their safety for consumption.

However, it’s important to note that artificially sweetened soft drinks are acidic and may erode tooth enamel when consumed in excess.

Conclusion

Artificial sweeteners provide a viable alternative to sugar, especially for those looking to reduce calorie intake and manage weight. While they are not without controversy, the majority of scientific evidence suggests that they are safe for consumption in moderate amounts. As with any dietary choice, it is essential to consider individual health needs and preferences.

For those looking to cut down on sugar without sacrificing sweetness, artificial sweeteners, including natural options like stevia, can be a helpful tool. However, it is always best to consume them in moderation and focus on a balanced diet rich in whole foods.

If you need tailored nutrition advice, book a telehealth consultation with our dietitian today and take the first step towards a healthier you.

By Eleanor Thackrey.

References

[1] Dietary sugar and body weight: Have we reached a crisis in the epidemic of obesity and diabetes?

[2] Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review

[3] Artificial sweeteners—do they bear a carcinogenic risk?

[4] Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies

[5] Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame?

[6] A double‐blind placebo‐controlled study of the effectiveness and tolerability of oral stevioside in human hypertension

[7] Antihyperglycemic effects of stevioside in type 2 diabetic subjects

[8] Intense sweeteners, energy intake and the control of body weight

[9] Additives – Aspartame