Did you know that it’s normal to enjoy sweet foods? Yep, you aren’t broken! We have a natural preference for sweet foods.
Why do I love sweets so much?
Did you know that it’s normal to enjoy sweet foods? Yep, you aren’t broken! We have a natural preference for sweet foods. In fact, the very first food that we’re introduced to, breastmilk, is naturally sweet. Many foods, like bananas, sweet potatoes, and apples, are naturally sweet thanks to naturally occurring sugars in them. But wait! Before you think you need to ditch these foods, remember this: these naturally occurring sugars are just carbohydrates, our brain’s bestie. Naturally sweet fruits and vegetables still provide lots of vitamins and minerals, making these foods an important part of a balanced diet.
Naturally sweet foods are great, but what about foods with added sugars?
During food processing, those natural sugars can be added to food products that aren’t naturally sweet. We’re talking about cane sugar, fructose, honey, etc. – maybe you’ve seen these ingredients listed on food labels. Manufacturers add these to appeal to our sweet tooth and to make foods more shelf stable. When these sweeteners are added to foods, they increase carbohydrates and calories, raising the level of sugar in our blood. Research shows us that when we eat foods with lots of added sugars, we tend to eat more calories and fewer vitamins and minerals. This eventually leads to an increased risk of obesity, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,1 and can make losing weight or managing blood sugar even more difficult if that’s something we’re struggling with.
Enter the alternative, artificial sweeteners.
It’s because of the negative consequences associated with consuming added sugars that we’ve looked into other ways to sweeten foods. One way to do this is with artificial sweeteners, also known as nonnutritive sweeteners. These are a type of ingredients used in food processing to make foods sweeter without adding extra calories and carbohydrates. In most cases, artificial sweeteners do not increase our blood sugar like other added sugars. In general, artificial sweeteners make foods taste even sweeter than sugar itself, meaning you can use less to achieve the same level of sweetness. As of 2017, the FDA has approved the use of six artificial sweeteners as food additives: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, and advantame. There are also two declared as generally recognized as safe: stevia extract and monk fruit extract. Ingredients designated as GRAS just haven’t been researched as much as those defined as additives. When the FDA clears artificial sweeteners as food additives, they also establish an acceptable daily intake (ADI) level which says how much of each is safe to eat daily. The ADI varies for each of the artificial sweeteners and dietary research suggests that we generally stay well below the ADI for each.2
What are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohols, like mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and maltitol, are also commonly used to sweeten foods. Unlike nonnutritive sweeteners, sugar alcohols do contribute about half the calories of normal sugar. This still makes them a lower calorie option than regular sugar, while only slightly raising blood sugar. However, sugar alcohols are not fully digested or absorbed. In fact, if you eat sugar alcohol frequently or in large amounts, it’s common to experience GI symptoms such as bloating, gassiness, nausea, and diarrhea. This makes sugar alcohol sometimes unpleasant for people with IBS to consume.
Is it ok if I eat artificial sweeteners?
It’s estimated that added sugars contribute about 15% of daily calories to the average American diet.1 For a person consuming 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 300 calories just from added sugar! This can make it difficult for someone to achieve their weight loss and fitness goals. Choosing foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners, rather than added sugars, can reduce overall calorie intake and help individuals with conditions such as diabetes or insulin resistance better control their blood sugar. Heard the rumor that artificial sweeteners cause cancer? On the contrary, the National Cancer Institute maintains that there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners approved for use by the FDA cause cancer. In general, research suggests that consuming artificial sweeteners within the set ADI does not increase food intake, alter appetite, or cause other adverse effects.1 While some studies have linked artificial sweeteners with higher body weight, that does not mean that these sweeteners cause weight gain. It could just mean that individuals who have higher body weights are more likely to consume artificial sweeteners. The theory is that by replacing added sugars with artificial sweeteners, we might reduce our overall calorie intake and more easily manage our weight.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we limit added sugars in our diet. These guidelines suggest that added sugars contribute to no more than 10% of our total daily calories. For people who prefer sweet flavors, especially those trying to reduce caloric intake or manage their blood sugar, artificial sweeteners can be a way to do this without adding extra carbohydrates and calories. In general, artificial sweeteners are safe when consumed in moderation. You’ll find nonnutritive sweeteners and sugar alcohols listed as ingredients in “sugar-free” or “diet” foods and beverages, like diet soda, sugar-free jelly, and even gum. If you have a sensitive stomach or IBS, be careful with how much sugar alcohol you eat. Otherwise, it’s generally safe for you to enjoy foods made with artificial sweeteners.
As always, though, we recommend that you rotate nutrient-dense foods in your meal plan as often as possible. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that provide plenty of vitamins and minerals, in addition to macronutrients and calories. We’re talking about fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. So when you choose your meals and snacks for the week, think about ways that you can incorporate veggies from our list of “free” foods, whole grains when you’re cooking rice or pasta, and fruit-containing snacks. When we focus on adding more of these types of foods, our meal plan will become more balanced overall and this helps us feel great while working towards our fitness goals.
Let’s Sum It Up:
Do your best to limit added sugars. This can make it more difficult for you to manage caloric intake and achieve weight loss.
Swapping some added sugars for artificial sweeteners is perfectly fine in moderation.
You might want to avoid foods sweetened with sugar alcohols if you have a sensitive stomach.
Work towards a balanced meal plan by incorporating fruit-containing snacks, whole grains, and vegetables from the “free” foods list.
Fitch C and Keim KS. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:739-758. https://www.andeal.org/vault/2440/web/JADA_NNS.pdf
FDA. High-Intensity Sweeteners. Updated December 19, 2017. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/high-intensity-sweeteners#:~:text=Six%20high%2Dintensity%20sweeteners%20are,sucralose%2C%20neotame%2C%20and%20advantame.