When “diet” and “light” alternatives to sugar began to hit the stores, they brought in caution, but also hope – could these really keep our weight in control, while being just as satisfyingly sweet as table sugar?
Many studies have been conducted ever since, so let’s take a look at what we know or are fairly certain about today.
Artificial Sweeteners and How They Work
Artificial sweeteners, often found in diet alternatives, are substances that stimulate the tongue’s receptors of sweet taste.
There are many different types of artificial sweeteners. The most common ones found in the ingredients list are aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, neotame and acesulfame potassium.1
They often have no or negligible amounts of calories, which might help reduce the harmful effects of too much sugar – but there’s a lot of controversy here. The most common one surrounds the diet versions of sweet beverages.
Diet Sodas & Our Health
Given that they have little to no calories, diet sodas should theoretically help people lose weight and prevent sugar-related diseases. However, this isn’t always the case.
There are lots and lots of studies showing associations between diet sodas and an increased risk of developing type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome, depression, becoming obese and even preterm delivery.2-5One study stated that artificial sweeteners can cause problems by altering the “good” bacteria in our gut. But, more evidence is required to conclude this.6
We must remember that many of these studies show “associations”, which does not necessarily point to the diet soda or artificial sweeteners as the cause of these problems. That’s why there are also studies that show no associations at all.
But there may be an explanation for these correlations.
The Sugar Craving Theory
Sugar triggers the release of brain chemicals and hormones, in what we call the “food reward”. This is crucial to satiety, i.e., feeling satisfied after eating.
The effect of sugar on the food reward is so powerful that it’s similar to drugs like cocaine, which can lead to an addiction to the rewarding feeling.7, 8
Some people who crave sweet food more than others don’t get the same satiety or food reward when replace sugar with artificial sweeteners, possibly leading to more cravings.1They probably experience withdrawal symptoms of the rewarding feeling.
It’s believed that this could be the reason artificial sweeteners are linked with increased appetite and cravings for sugary food in some studies, while others show no such effects. 1, 9, 10
Alternatives to Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Anyone who is (or is concerned about being) the type of person who craves the “food reward” should gradually reduce their consumption of sugar.
The higher the number of calories, the higher the “food reward”. So, low-calorie sweeteners like these may eventually dial down the cravings:
i. Low-calorie sweeteners that are derived from natural ingredients. For example, Stevia, extracted from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana, is a very popular sweetener. A few studies suggest it that can lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.11
ii. Sugar alcohols are also low-calorie sweeteners that have a similar sweetness to sugar with less than half the calories. These include xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol and mannitol. These offer some health benefits too. For example, xylitol appears to be good for dental and bone health.12, 13
As it turns out, there is no miracle solution that lets you gorge on sugar and sugary treats guiltlessly. But with these switches, it may be possible to no longer need it at all!
1. Yang Q. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 2010, 83(2): 101-108.
2. AAN. Hold the diet soda? Sweetened drinks linked to depression, coffee tied to lower risk. ScienceDaily 2013 [cited]Available from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130108162135.htm
3. Halldorsson TI, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2010, 92(3): 626-633.
4. Lutsey PL, et al. Circulation 2008, 117(6): 754-761.
5. Nettleton JA, et al. Diabetes Care 2009, 32(4): 688-694.
6. Suez J, et al. Nature 2014, 514(7521): 181-186.
7. Avena NM, et al. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 2008, 32(1): 20-39.
8. Lenoir M, et al. PLoS ONE 2007, 2(8): e698.
9. Miller PE & Perez V. Am J Clin Nutr 2014, 100(3): 765-777.
10. Tate DF, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2012, 95(3): 555-563.
11. Goyal SK, et al. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 2009, 61(1): 1-10.
12. Livesey G. Nutrition Research Reviews 2003, 16(02): 163-191.
13. Maguire A & Rugg-Gunn AJ. Br Dent J 2003, 194(8): 429-436.