To a certain extent, all humans have a sweet tooth. It has been etched in our genes since prehistoric times when the sweetness of a ripe fruit essentially meant survival and thriving.
Millennia passed, and now the average American male consumes about 82 grams of sugar daily – the equivalent of almost 20 tablespoons of the stuff. Which is a stepping stone towards diabetes, liver disease, some forms of cancer, and several other conditions that slowly destroy your body.
And yet not all sugar substitutes are good for you either.
The 5 most common sugar substitutes – and their safety for you
We’re kicking off this list with one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the modern market – and simultaneously one of the most controversial ones.
Aspartame is a component of hundreds of beverages and foods worldwide, approved by the FDA and other regulatory boards worldwide. As of 2018, the official position is that this substance is safe at “current doses of exposure.”
But here are some important points to consider before buying any aspartame-containing product:
- Aspartame is metabolized in the human body into phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%), and methanol (10%). There are studies that indicate these metabolites contribute to cell damage in the central nervous system and another minor metabolite, diketopiperazine, might even cause brain tumors.
- People with phenylketonuria suffer from disrupted phenylalanine metabolism, and thus should NOT take aspartame.
- At doses exceeding 40 mg/kg/d, aspartame and its metabolites may induce severe disruption of the oxidant/antioxidant systems in the body, leading to cell damage and systemic inflammation.
- While most short-term animal studies of the health effects of aspartame speak in favor of its safety, there is evidence that it could increase the risk of certain types of cancer in the long run even at doses considered safe for humans (20 mg/kg/d).
Combine this data with the fact that aspartame currently has no confirmed beneficial metabolic effects – and there’s no solid reason to take it at all. Also, it’s not temperature-stable, so you can’t use it for baking.
Our verdict: although considered generally safe at recommended doses, there is a lot of alarming data to be processed. AVOID WHENEVER POSSIBLE.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that’s produced from xylose, a sugar naturally found in some trees (like birch, for example, which is 30% xylose). Officially approved as a generally safe food additive in the US, this substance has a glycemic index (GI) as low as 7 (table sugar is 68, pure glucose is 100) and actually has quite a few health benefits.
For instance, some studies have confirmed that xylitol could reduce by 40% the risk of developing root caries lesions while some other studies recommend it as an anti-diabetic supplement that could improve the pancreas’ function on a cell level.
So what’s the catch, you ask? After all, it’s considered to be generally safe?
First of all, sugar alcohols aren’t completely absorbed in the human intestines and that’s why they can cause all sorts of local side effects including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome. But there’s one more important thing.
Xylitol ingestion is often fatal to dogs. Always remember this if you own one and look out for the following symptoms: loss of coordination, vomiting, collapse, seizures. Clinically, xylitol ingestion in dogs is marked be serious hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), hepatic failure, and blood-clotting problems.
Our verdict: safe for humans, deadly for some animals – purchase and store with extreme care. Ingest with caution if you have sensitive bowels.
Just like the previous item on our list, erythritol is a sugar alcohol.
This one, however, has MUCH less gastrointestinal side effects (laxation, bloating, etc.) because only 10% of it reaches the large intestine. In general, erythritol does not cause any discomfort in humans when taken in doses under 50 g at once (which is a whole lot for a sweetener that’s almost as sweet as table sugar).
Some other studies point out that erythritol is more effective than xylitol in promoting oral health. A few scientists suggest that it could have antioxidative properties and protect from sugar-induced vascular damage.
The downside? Pretty much none. At the time being, erythritol is among the safest artificial sweeteners around, with no current cancer-related or metabolism-disrupting concerns.
Our verdict: one of the safest artificial sweeteners currently available. Note that natural substances and sweets are always better, but if you’re really looking for something artificial – erythritol is one of your best shots.
Saccharin (benzoic sulfimide) was discovered back in 1879, and ever since then it has had a whole lot of highs and lows, praises and shunning. For instance, in the 1970s a series of animal studies confirmed that saccharin is able to cause bladder cancer in rats, leading to the adoption of a warning label on all products containing saccharin:
"Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals"
However, the warning label was dropped in 2000, when it has been found that the described detrimental effect was due to the unique physiological trait of rats. Simply speaking, the human organism is incapable of reacting the same way to saccharin – and thus the risk for developing bladder cancer amounts to zero.
At the time being, there are no solid studies indicating that saccharin could have any detrimental effects on human health. Lastly, saccharin can be used in baking and cooking since it does not change its taste after being heated.
Our verdict: fairly safe to use according to current scientific evidence. Quite convenient to use as a baking substitute.
About 600 times sweeter than sugar, sucralose is one of the most powerful (and popular) artificial sweeteners worldwide. It’s not absorbed by the body, has virtually zero calories, and does not affect blood glucose levels.
Chemically, sucralose is an organochlorine – a product of sucrose chlorination. But don’t panic after imagining those chlorine atoms: although chloride itself is dangerous, it’s just not the same. Not by a long shot. For example, table salt is HCl (50% clorine), and yet you’re not afraid of it, right?
Here are the currently available facts on sucralose-related dangers:
- There is scarce evidence pointing that it could cause a reduction in beneficial gut bacteria.
- A few studies affirm that under high temperatures sucralose generates chloropropanols, a class of substances potentially toxic to humans.
And that’s it: no cancer-related concerns, according to solid scientific papers, which is great. Sucralose is almost biologically inert – only 2-8% of it is metabolized in the body, so the health effects it may induce are minimal.
Our verdict: generally safe to use as a sweetener but AVOID using as a baking sugar substitute due to the potential risk of chloropropanols.
There’s only one reason why people use artificial sugar substitutes: they are handy. Conveniently sold in colorful packets, these products are much easier to carry with you than a little jar of honey – and they would still keep you safe from table sugar.
But it’s important to think through all the pros and cons and never choose convenience over safety. We at OneEarthHealth strongly recommend sticking to healthy and natural artificial sweeteners at all times: they are utterly safe and packed with all sorts of additional nutrients and benefits.
However, if you absolutely need to pick a certain artificial sweetener – we’d suggest erythritol or saccharin. All others have their nuances and concerns while these are generally safe.