We get asked a lot about alternatives to sugar. This is warranted, as individuals look for ways to reduce intake but confronted with mixed messages about the health effects of consuming sugar substitutes.
Are they helpful or harmful? For a simple answer, here is what we advise:
Alternative, intense sweeteners and sugar substitutes are fine if weaning off a very high sugar diet for the short-term, but not something we recommend consuming regularly or long-term. If using, ensure you do not go overboard.
However, by reducing our intake of sugar and sweeteners overall, our sensitivity to the sweet taste from whole foods will eventually increase. We can then better appreciate the subtle sweetness in whole foods and spices such as sweet potato, cinnamon, and vanilla, reducing the requirement for that intense sweet and sugary hit.
Still hankering for a bit more info on intense sweeteners? Read on, friend!
What are intense sweeteners?
Intense sweeteners are defined by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) as: “…many times sweeter than sugar which means they can be used in much smaller amounts. They are classed as food additives and added to foods to replace sugar to provide low or lower energy/kilojoule foods or foods that are reduced in sugar or sugar-free.”
At the time of writing, FSANZ listed 13 ingredients as safe and acceptable intense sweeteners for use in Australia and New Zealand.
They are a mixture of naturally-derived and artificially-created substances, as well as sugar alcohols.
Naturally-derived sweetener products are a result of the processing of specific plants to produce highly concentrated and sweet-tasting extracts.
In particular, we are asked frequently about two naturally-derived intense sweeteners: stevia and monk fruit.
Steviol glycosides are the sweet-tasting extract from the plant Stevia rebaudiana, native to South America. As a sweetener, it seems okay, though it’s often only available as an extract which takes some processing to obtain.
Stevia can be used in an unprocessed form. Some people pick a leaf straight from the plant and put it into their tea, which would be the most ‘natural’ way to have it.
Monk fruit extract (also called luo han guo extract) is derived from the fruit of the monk fruit perennial vine native to southern China.
Monk fruit and stevia are likely better options than many other intense sweeteners out there, as they are at least derived from natural sources and not artificially made (though more research on health effects, particularly with monk fruit, is needed).
We mentioned above intense sweeteners are only okay in the short-term if weaning of a very high sugar diet, but not something we recommend consuming regularly or long-term.
Why? While new research is frequently being published on health impacts of various artificial sweeteners (for example, sucralose and aspartame), regular or high intake may be linked to:
- Adverse impacts on the composition of microbes of the intestinal microbiome (which is central to every aspect of health), possibly increasing the risk for the development of type 2 diabetes.
- Adverse impact on the body’s blood glucose response and increased risk for type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk for weight gain and glucose intolerance
- Increased risk for circulatory disease
- Tricking us into eating more food, and possibly increasing hunger. (Which is ironic considering they have been marketed for assisting weight loss!)
In saying that, more research is needed to further elucidate the impact of each of the various sweeteners on human health.
The physiological and behavioural effects may differ depending on which sweetener (and how much) is being consumed, its interactions with the sweet taste receptor, its interference with gut microbiota composition and gut hormone response, and in brain activation and learned responses to sweetness.
A recent study indicates that simply tasting sucralose impacts carbohydrate metabolism and glucose control. Another study on sucralose suggests pairing the sweetener with a carbohydrate impairs insulin sensitivity (which, we will add, is a common pairing in many processed and packaged products). More research into mechanisms behind this is needed.
Additionally, a study on mice published in 2020 studied the impact sugar versus the sweetener Acesulfame K (used in diet soft drink, sweetening packets, and other products) on sweet taste receptors and the brain cells.
The researchers found that while sweet tastes were detected on the tongue for each sugar and the sweetener, only the presence of sugar in the gut – specifically glucose – was signalled to brain cells via receptors in the intestinal (gut) lining. The neurons were not activated following artificial sweetener consumption. This may offer insight into what drives our desire for sugar, and why sugar substitutes are never quite as satisfying as the real thing.
Bottom line: if you are after something sweet, we are big proponents for choosing real food and limiting or avoiding artificially made substances.
Another type of intense sweetener are sugar alcohols. All sugar alcohols are highly processed, offering no nutritional value and far removed from their naturally occurring sources.
Also known as sugar replacers or polyols, sugar alcohols are a combination of sugar and alcohol at a molecular level. The alcohol is not ethanol (like the stuff in vodka or wine), and sugar alcohols occur naturally in whole foods like veg and fruit.
When used commercially, they are chemically processed from foods containing starch, glucose or sucrose to form a crystallised product that can be added to packaged goods as a sweetener and to add texture and bulk, such as in ‘sugar-free’ biscuits and gum.
Read more on sugar alcohols here.
Newer sugar alternatives
Concern for the health effects following the consumption of added, free sugars and/or intense sweeteners is prevalent.
In response, the food industry is constantly innovating to create alternatives for the sweet factor in food and drink products without the implications for human health.
Nestle is using cacao pulp, formally a by-product in the chocolate-making process, to replace some of the conventional sugar used in its chocolate products. This sugar-replacement may still be considered an added sugar, though, and products containing it shouldn’t be considered a ‘health food’.
Another is NuCane, a product that claims to be “the good sugar”. It may be better than the standard, highly processed white table sugar in terms of its glycaemic index, but be sure not to mistake it as healthy. It is still an added sugar.
Limit sugars and sweeteners
Researchers have warned that consumers must be made aware that substituting added sugar with another type of sweetener may not actually be beneficial for health, despite popular belief or how the product is marketed. Evidence continues to grow showing how intense sweeteners, especially artificial sweeteners, are implicated in the development of various health concerns and disease states.
As mentioned above, intense sweeteners without the associated energy hit typical of sugars are believed to lead to increased appetite. Artificial sweeteners, in particular, can maintain a strong craving and dependence on sugar.
As Damon said in That Sugar Book, “… the body cannot be tricked! A diet soft drink may briefly food the mind into believing it’s a sweet hit, but the body is too smart and will search for its ‘legitimate’ sugar fix elsewhere. It’s likely you’ll end up having a muffin or a piece of chocolate later on to satisfy the body’s needs.”
Ultimately, a little added sugar is fine for most. Hence the recommendations by the World Health Organization, that we endorse, to limit intake to 6 teaspoons (25g) per day. This can be on average, over a week. If you have more on one day, have less on the next.
As with any food we eat, including the type of added or free sugar or sweetener, the less processed it is, the better. Artificially created products should be consumed with caution. As Damon expressed in That Sugar Guide:
“Your body deserves better than laboratory-made sweetness.”
Instead, nourish yourself by consuming mostly real, whole and fresh foods. More of the good stuff so there is little room left in your diet for the not-so-good stuff.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med)