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It seems we all want to indulge in sweet treats now and then.

And the truth is there is a reason that our bodies sometimes crave sweets.

In fact, our bodies are naturally programmed to seek out sweets as a survival mechanism. We are attracted to fruits and starches for the energy and sustenance they provide.

But of course that ‘natural’ tendency for sugar left unchecked can have serious health consequences–from excess weight to diabetes.

For many the solution is simply to discard sugar and use sugar substitutes instead.

But before you trade in your maple and brown sugar oatmeal for a stevia-sweetened cinnamon roll, let’s take a closer look at sugar substitutes and whether or not they really should have a place in a healthful lifestyle.

A Multitude of Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes are food additives that replicate the sweetness of sugar, but give you less ‘food energy’. Some occur naturally while others are synthetic.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sugar substitutes can be high-intensity sweeteners, generally recognized as safe (GRAS) sweeteners or sugar alcohols.

High-intensity sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar but have very low or no calories.  They are “regulated as a food additive and must undergo premarket review and approval by the FDA before they can be used in food.”

FDA-approved high-intensity sweeteners include saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, and advantame.

GRAS substances are also high-intensity sweeteners but do not require premarket approval by the FDA.  GRAS sweeteners include certain steviol glycosides from the leaves of the stevia plant and extracts of monk fruit.

Sugar alcohols (like xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol) are 25% to 100% as sweet as sugar but provide 50% fewer calories.

The artificial sweetener craze began during the sugar shortages of World Wars I and II. Following the normalization of the sugar supply, saccharin entered the market as a calorie reduction tool.

It seems we are still trying to reach that perfect blend of sweetness with zero calories.

Here are some of the most popular and common sugar substitutes:

  • Erythritol: Discovered in 1848, this is a natural sugar alcohol that is 60% to 70% times as sweet as sugar. Primarily used in chewing gum, beverages, and baked goods, the FDA says it is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS).
  • Saccharin: Originally synthesized in 1879, saccharin (Sweet N’ Low) is 300-500 times as sweet as sugar. It is found in toothpaste, diet foods, and beverages.
  • Stevia: Isolated in 1931, this natural sugar substitute is 150 times as sweet as sugar. Found in Truvia, stevia is used to sweeten diet foods and beverages and as a tabletop sweetener. It presents potential health risks when ingested in high amounts.
  • Cyclamate: Discovered in 1937, cyclamate is the least sweet at only 10 to 30 times as sweet as sugar. It is sold as Sugar Twin in Canada and used to mask the bitterness of certain drugs. The US banned it in 1970 due to links to bladder cancer.
  • Aspartame: Discovered in 1965, this once-popular substitute is about 200 times as sweet as sugar. Aspartame (Equal) is used in sugar-free beverages, frozen desserts, chewing gums and gelatins. It may be linked to fibromyalgia and premature births.
  • Acesulfame potassium: Discovered in 1967, acesulfame K is 200 times as sweet as sugar. It is used as a sweetener in carbonated drinks, protein shakes, and pharmaceuticals. It may cause DNA damage and prenatal development problems.
  • Sucralose: Discovered in 1976, sucralose (Splenda) is 320 to 1,000 times as sweet as sugar. This sweetener is used in candy bars, nutrition bars, diet beverages and canned fruits. Though it may trigger migraine headaches in some individuals, there are relatively few other safety concerns.
  • Mogrosides: Discovered in 1995, this natural sugar substitute is 300 to 400 times as sweet as sugar. Sold as natural sweeteners like Japan’s Lakanto, Australia’s Norbu and America’s Nectresse, it is also used in certain cereals in the US. A fairly new sugar substitute, there is not much known about its long-term safety, but the FDA also considers this one GRAS.

Why Sugar Substitutes Are Not a Solution

In a landmark 2014 study, scientists were stunned to discover that artificial sweeteners might, in fact, exacerbate metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes, rather than prevent them. This now famous “Israeli Study” suggests that artificial sweeteners increase blood sugar levels and glucose intolerance while at the same time alter the composition and function of the gut flora.

This pivotal research, therefore, suggests that artificial sweetener consumption may, in fact, increase the risk of diabetes and obesity rather than be a panacea to these sugar-related health problems.

But it gets worse.

Because there is another counter-intuitive fact about artificial sweeteners–the fact that they may very well stimulate our appetite rather than suppress it.

The reason is simple.

Sweeteners fail to relieve our hunger in the same way that real sugar does. We walk away unsatisfied, increasing the likelihood that we will eat more unhealthful foods.

To add insult to injury, most sweeteners are 200 to 1,000 times sweeter than sugar. Over time, this can lead to a gradual loss of taste sensitivity due to increased intense exposure to the sweet taste and therefore diminish satisfaction levels after eating.

Unsatiated, we are tempted to eat more—particularly more sweets and packaged foods. Instead of eating less (the original intention), we end up consuming a lot more.

A never-ending vicious circle.

And What About Stevia?

Studies in the 1990s revealed that after consuming stevia the intestinal flora of rats converted Stevia’s active ingredient stevioside into toxic steviol, inducing high levels of mutagenic DNA damage. Further research has seen the same result in humans.

The World Health Organization says a safe consumption level is about 4 milligrams of stevia per kilogram of body weight (or 1.8 mg per pound). However, it should be noted that these ‘safe’ levels will be quickly exceeded if we add stevia to all our foods and drinks.

Consumed in small quantities (less than two sweetened beverages per day), stevia is still considered harmless.

Let’s Review

At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves why people are looking for a safe sugar substitute in the first place. The answer is because people want to cut back on their calories, lose weight and/or decrease blood sugar levels.

So are sugar substitutes the real answer to this?

In short, no.

For starters, and as mentioned in The Real Truth About Sugar –sugar should never be blamed for all our health problems.

The real issue behind the epidemic of obesity and metabolic diseases is the full fabric of our diet–not just one element. So ‘fixing’ sugar is not necessarily going to fix the core problems we are trying to address.

Next, the statistics show us clearly that the popular use of sugar substitutes has done nothing to eradicate the onslaught of obesity or the diabetic epidemic.

Since the early 70s, the use of artificial sweeteners in the US has risen at least 600 fold. In the same time frame, the average weight of Americans has soared with nearly 69% of all Americans now considered overweight.

In other words, the use of sugar substitutes has not only not made a dent on the problem, it may very well have done the opposite.

Let’s review what we have discovered about sugar substitutes:

  • They do not give the body energy
  • They fail to satiate us
  • They may actually encourage sugar-related diseases like diabetes rather than solve them
  • There are some health risks associated with their use
  • Their taste pale in comparison with the ‘real’ thing
  • They cannot be used as easily in cooking

Do Not Deny Your Sweet Tooth – Satisfy It

So if sugar substitutes are of limited (or no) use, what can we do about our sweet tooth?

To preface, I would like to stress the fact that our “sweet tooth” is normal and natural.

The problem is how we satisfy it.

We crave sugar because unprocessed, unrefined carbohydrates are the most efficient fuel and source of energy for our bodies. Several of our organs, like the brain, and nervous system, can run only on the glucose derived from fruits and/or starches.

The real problem is that we have gotten used to satisfying this natural craving for carbohydrates with highly concentrated and refined forms of sugar that disrupt our biochemistry. When in fact whole foods will always be a better choice to fill those natural sugar cravings.

So the next time you feel that sweet tooth act up, why not just pass on the sugar substitute and instead satisfy this craving by reaching for an ‘intact’ sugar or carbohydrate.

Like fresh fruit, starchy veggies or legumes.

Whole foods high in starches and intact sugars are filling, naturally sweet, have zero negative health effects, and allow our body to process sugar the way it was meant to – naturally.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.