By Devin Almonte
Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes are often lauded as a way to (almost literally!) have your cake and eat it too, when it comes to sweet treats. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all pros with no cons. In fact, artificial sweeteners can have some very notable downsides, as we’ll explain in this comprehensive guide to not-so-sugary sweetness.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Generally speaking, artificial sweeteners are sugar replacements. They replicate (or attempt to) the sweet flavor we associate with sugar, but don’t have some of sugars other qualities. Many are zero or very low calorie, for instance, or don’t create the same blood glucose boosting qualities as sucrose (table sugar). Artificial sweeteners come from a variety of different sources and in numerous different formulations.
Sucralose (Brand name: Splenda)
Sucralose is one of the more (relatively) modern artificial sweeteners, having been introduced to the market in 1999. Sucralose quickly became popular because of the simple fact that, at least for most people, it lacks the chemical aftertaste that many people notice with other sugar substitutes. It simply tastes sweet.
It’s also heat stable, which some artificial sweeteners are not. That makes it ideal for home cooking. While it can’t fully replace all of sugar’s properties, it will keep its sweetness even at high cooking temperatures.
It’s created by replacing parts of natural sugar (sucrose) molecules with chlorine—specifically, certain hydrogen-oxygen groups. The resulting molecule, sucralose, is much sweeter than sucrose, by far—about 600 times sweeter. But it contains far fewer (effectively negligible, in regular serving sizes) calories.
Saccharin (Brand name: Sweet n' Low)
With a name derived from the word saccharine, which itself means sweet, this heat-stable artificial sweetener is three to four hundred times the sweetness of sugar. Also known as benzoic sulfimide, there are various ways of producing the compound.
Saccharin has a long and storied history. It was first developed in 1879 by chemist Constantin Fahlberg, who would later become wealthy after producing it for sale. It was not commonly used, however, until sugar shortages threatened the communal sweet tooth during World War I.
Its popularity truly exploded, however, during the dieting crazes of the 1960s and 1970s, when its calorie-free nature became more relevant.
Aspartame (Brand name: Equal)
This calorie free sugar substitute is a methyl ester of the dipeptide aspartic acid/phenylalanine. It’s 200 times sweeter than table sugar, giving it nearly no nutritive value when used as a sugar substitute. It is well known to be one of the sweeteners closest to sugar’s flavor profile. As a result, it’s often blended with other sweeteners to create a sweetness more like that of sugar.
However, it is not heat stable, and its amino acids may break down in high pH conditions as well. This limits its usefulness in several ways. It’s undesirable for many cooking and baking applications. Also, as many shelf stable products require a higher pH, aspartame is rarely used on its own in these products. Its stability can be improved with the addition of fat or maltodextrin. Some people report a bitter aftertaste, while others cannot detect it.
Stevia (Brand name: Truvia)
Stevia is somewhat unique among sugar substitutes in that it is not technically an “artificial” sweetener. Rather than being created in a laboratory, this substitute is extracted from a plant. While extracts from Stevia rebaudiana have only become popular as a commercial sugar substitute during the past several decades, it’s been known in its native South America as a “sweet herb” for 1,500 years.
As far as its history in the West, it was first described in 1899 by Moises Santiago Bertoni, a Swiss scientist, but was not researched in depth until 1931. It wasn’t until 2008 that a retail version of the extract, highly purified, was found acceptable for GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.
Sugar Alcohols: (Varied brands)
Sugar alcohol is an umbrella term for a class of polyols which contains a number of organic compounds including xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and erythritol. Sugar alcohols do occur in nature, and have in the past been obtained from natural sources. Today, however, most sugar alcohols are created from sugar, which has fewer hydrogen atoms than sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sugar, although their nutritive value is not negligible as with other artificial sweeteners (with the exception of erythritol, which is calorie-free). They are also slightly less sweet than sugar. However, they can be used to great effect to mask the bitter or unpleasant aftertastes of other sugar substitutes. It's also worth mentioning that some sugar alcohols can be rough on your gut in large amounts.
Artificial sweeteners are marketed very cleverly. After all, you can’t visit a blog or click on a health video without hearing about the dangers of sugar. And artificial sweeteners—seemingly—neatly avoid many of the problems we encounter with sugar consumption. They’re especially helpful for avoiding the biggest complaints about the sweet stuff, namely calories, carbs, and glycemic response (effect on blood sugar).
And that’s great. However, it leads people to the erroneous conclusion that artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes, no more and no less. That is, that they offer all of the sweet, sweet flavor and none of the negative consequences.
But sweet or not, artificial sweeteners aren’t sugar, and they’re not just “sugar minus the downsides.” They might not have the same downsides as sugar, but they do have downsides all their own. And depending on how they affect you, or your reasons for choosing them, you may find that those downsides are just as bad or worse than the downsides associated with sucrose.
“If artificial sweeteners were so dangerous, they wouldn’t sell them,” you might be thinking. And you might be right… or you might not be. That’s the whole problem. Artificial sweeteners have always been, and continue to be, plagued by controversy. There are two big reasons for this, and both have to do with the research behind these additives.
Many artificial sweeteners, including acesulfame potassium, sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame have a history of questionable research backing them up. In some cases, the problem lies with the funding for the research, as often the only studies available were funded by the manufacturers themselves. In other cases, there are just too many studies that conflict with one another. One study suggests cancer, another doesn’t, and so on.
While some artificial sweeteners have been studied for half a century, others, however, are newer on the scene, or simply don’t have any long term studies. This is especially true of stevia and sucralose, as well as acesulfame potassium.
There’s also another issue, before we get into the more serious failings of various artificial sweeteners, however.
In an attempt to move away from the artificial sweeteners listed above, I've made a switch to the more natural varieties, with Lankato being my current favorite. With its Monkfruit extract, it has an amazing taste. The others are great as well and really comes down to personal preference.
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