Do Sugar Substitutes Make You Scratch Your Head?

Are you sick and tired of finding sugar in everything? It’s in bread, salad dressing and even in meat these days! You may be eating sugar without even knowing it. That’s not helping you cut down on sugar. It’s worse if you have blood sugar issues or are at risk for them. 

As you shop around, you see foods that are labeled sugar-free. But what does this actually mean? Are these sugar substitutes good for you despite the claims that food companies make? Let’s get into this and talk about some sugar substitutes you might know. I’ll answer questions like: is stevia bad for you or is stevia healthy? Is aspartame safe? Is Sucralose bad for you? Is erythritol safe? This will help you make better choices with sweeteners.

Is Sucralose bad for you?
Sucralose is a sweetener that has zero calories. It is about 600 times sweeter than sugar! A little bit really goes a long way. It’s used in all types of foods given its stability in low or high temperature foods. Think: anything from ice cream to baked goods. The most common brand of sucralose in the U.S. is Splenda. Surely you’ve seen it on tables at restaurants. But is sucralose bad for you? Perhaps you’ve heard a few things about it…

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that sucralose is a healthy sugar alternative. They’ve done more than 100 safety studies on it over a span of 20 years. Sucralose is considered safe for children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, and even diabetics. In fact, extensive research shows that sucralose doesn’t increase blood sugar levels. However, it does raise blood sugar and insulin levels in some. The only way to find out if you’re part of that “some” is to see how it impacts you. Not the greatest strategy if you’re pre-diabetic or diabetic is it? 

Despite its mostly healthy claims, baking with sucralose might be harmful. While it’s supposed to be heat resistant, some recent studies have challenged this idea. Splenda starts breaking down and interacting with other ingredients at high temperatures. One study showed that when heated with a substance found in fat molecules, a harmful substance was formed that may raise your risk for cancer. That’s not good.

Gut punch?
There is no agreed upon definition of what a healthy gut looks like. But, we do know there are friendly bacteria in our guts that are very important to our health. While there isn’t research in humans yet, a study in rats found that those who consumed sucralose had significant reductions in bifidobacteria and lactic acid (probiotics that can be beneficial for the gut microbiome). More harmful bacteria were less affected. In fact, gut bacteria levels didn’t return to normal following the end of the experiment. It seems like sucralose may be bad for you. Whether it’s worth some of these risks is something to consider.

Is aspartame safe?
Did you know that aspartame is the most consumed low-calorie sweetener in the U.S.? It’s a low-calorie sweetener that doesn’t contain any natural sugars. Aspartame was developed in 1965 and FDA approved in 1981. It’s also marketed as: NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin, and AminoSweet and found in over 6,000 products! 

Aspartame is a fine, white powder that is almost 200 times sweeter than sugar. It’s made from two naturally occurring amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. You may recognize that second ingredient from over-the-counter medications, as well as diet foods and diet sodas. But is aspartame healthy?

According to most studies, aspartame seems to have little or no effect on blood sugar levels in diabetics. However, other studies find that consuming products with aspartame raises cortisol levels (your body’s main stress hormone). It also alters the activity of microbes that are responsible for the breakdown of food in the digestive tract. It is believed that these changes may result in weight gain and insulin resistance. Both of these may have a negative impact on control of blood sugar for those with type 2 diabetes. Additionally, there is a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) where the body can’t break down phenylalanine. People with this condition get a build up of phenylalanine in the blood and brain which can lead to brain damage.  

So is aspartame actually safe?
Well, there have been reports of premature births, allergic reactions and weight gains in newborns. There is also a correlation between absorption of aspartame during pregnancy and autism in children. Consuming aspartame can also cause mood disorders, mental stress, as well as depression. Aspartame sure does raise some red flags. 

Is stevia bad for you?
By now, most people have heard of stevia. It comes from a bushy shrub which is part of the sunflower family. Unlike the other sugar substitutes above, stevia is natural. It has a long history of use in sweetening drinks and to make tea in South America and Asia since the 16th century. 

It’s so sweet that it’s about 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar! I’ve found it to have a bit of a bitter taste. I don’t like the taste of it in coffee, but I’m fine with it in tea. That’s just me though.

The FDA has only approved the purified form of stevia. Look for stevia extract or stevia rebaudiana on ingredient labels for these approved forms rather than whole leaf stevia.  Okay, so is stevia healthy then?

Stevia extract is free from side effects according to safety studies. In fact, there are health benefits related to stevia. These include: reduced calories (stevia has few, if any calories per serving size), it doesn’t affect your blood sugar levels, it has no effect on insulin response, and it lowers the risk of cavities. Additionally, stevia contains sterols and antioxidant compounds which can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. While some studies show that it may help to lower blood pressure, other studies suggest that it may not impact blood pressure. Stevia doesn’t sound so bad now does it?

Is erythritol safe?
Erythritol is a sugar substitute that is harder to pronounce. However, it’s not a new food by any means. It’s been around for as long as fruits have been in existence. Erythritol is a carbohydrate, or more specifically, a sugar alcohol. It is naturally found in some foods and is also made when some foods ferment, such as wine, beer, and cheese. Don’t worry, it won’t get you drunk or leave you hungover. 

Erythritol has zero calories. Your small intestine absorbs it quickly within 24 hours. As a result, your body doesn’t get the chance to turn it into energy. So is erythritol safe for diabetics? It sure is. Erythritol has no effect on glucose or insulin levels. 

So is erythritol healthy then?
Some people are sensitive to sugar alcohols. Consuming too much of them can result in bloating and an upset stomach. Some can even induce gas or cramping, or act like a laxative when they reach your colon. Erythritol is mostly absorbed before it reaches your colon. It is then excreted in your urine, unchanged. People tend to handle erythritol better than they do other sugar alcohols. You may notice a sensitivity to it, so watch your intake if you decide to consume erythritol. 

What’s your experience been like with sugar substitutes? Please tell us in the comments…