Are Plant-Based Sweeteners Healthy? Experts Share Notes

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, was recently flagged by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as s possible carcinogenic for humans, once again sparking what has already been an ongoing debate around its health benefits. While there have been numerous conversations about how much of aspartame can be safely consumed or whether it has any nutritional value at all, food writers and experts have highlighted the need to examine the concept of sugar substitutes in its entirety.

Numerous health experts have suggested that instead of relying upon artificial sweeteners to fulfil our cravings for all things sweet, it is better to cut down on desserts for optimum health and wellness. For her part, nutritionist Sangeeta Khanna advocates that it is alright to have "a little bit of sugar (2-3 tsp a day)" but "one should cut down if consuming large amounts of sugar or large servings of desserts."

Why Artificial Sweeteners

According to Krish Ashok, author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking, taste buds recognising the sweet taste have evolved over time as a way to detect foods that are rich in carbohydrates. "Sugars," he explains, "are the simplest carbohydrates that give us instant energy." 

The science communicator elaborates that urban, modern, sedentary living has increased a tendency of developing lifestyle diseases, particularly insulin resistance that can cause Type 2 diabetes. And amidst these tremendous shifts in modern food culture and lifestyle changes has evolved the concept of artificial sweeteners or "molecules that taste sweet but are non-calorific." This means that the small intestine is unable to process or digest them. One such sweetener is aspartame, widely used in hard candies, chewing gums, diet colas and soft drinks as a substitute for those looking to cut down their sugar consumption.

"There are 6 types of artificial sweeteners," elaborates clinical nutritionist, PCOS and gut health expert Avantii Deshpande, including aspartame, saccharine and stevia. Sweeteners like aspartame are nearly 200 times sweeter than sugar but hardly add to the calorie count making them an attractive choice for those looking to combat obesity or diabetes while fulfilling their sugar cravings.

However, nutritionists have for long cautioned against the consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners for several reasons. For her part, Avantii suggests that sweeteners have no nutritional value, instead, "They interfere with the body's capacity to control [food] intake and lead to overeating and ultimately weight-gain." Moreover, foods like candies and gums which contain sweeteners are addictive and can hamper growth and development especially among children.

Are Plant-Based Sweeteners Better?

"This is yet another common misconception," Krish asserts, "this idea that natural or 'plant-based' sweeteners as opposed to something made in a lab is better."

Many home cooks use plant-based sweeteners like Stevia to cut down on the amount of refined sugar consumed by the body. However, as the author maintains, "Stevia, monk fruit, etc. again, are non-caloric sweeteners, they just happen to be of plant source. Our body cannot tell the difference between the molecule that came from a plant and pretty much the exact same molecules that you synthesise in the lab."

In fact, stevia has a bitter aftertaste and when it is sold in packets in the market, this is masked by the use of erythritol, explains Sangeeta. While it is good to use in natural raw form, packaged stevia ultimately does more harm than good.

In her podcast, Eat Smart With Avantii, the nutritionist lays bare the issue with using sweeteners for a prolonged period. According to her, the problem is that the cancer risk notwithstanding, sweeteners are known to elevate the danger of other diseases. Sweeteners are harmful for serotonin function and can lead to mental health distress, cardiovascular diseases and the tendency to develop blood clots. Rather than reduce sugar intake, she rues, many researches indicate that sweeteners "heighten cravings for sweets."

Krish highlights that while in the short-term, "sweeteners can help with weight-loss," in the long-run, they can interfere with gut microbiomes. This can have a drastic impact on gut health because the body is essentially consuming something it cannot process.

What Is The Long-Term Solution?

Nutritionists and food experts vociferously advocate cutting down on sugar intake as a better alternative to using sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners. Sweeteners should be avoided altogether in every day cooking and day-to-day diet, they suggest, but using natural substitutes is hardly a viable solution.

Be it jaggery, honey or molasses, these are all variants of sugar, high in calorie content and difficult for a sedentary body to process quickly. 

"They are all sugars," maintains Krish and, "people are fooling themselves and using it as an excuse to consume more sweets."