Busting 6 Myths About Artificial Sweeteners With A Nutritionist

Artificial sweeteners have long been a subject of controversy and debate in the realm of nutrition and health. As society continues to grapple with the concerns surrounding sugar consumption and its associated health risks, alternative sweeteners have emerged as a potential solution to satisfy our sweet cravings without the added calories. 

The term ‘Artificial sweeteners’ is a bucket term and they come in a few forms – 7 of which are FDA approved –, each with its unique composition, sweetness profile, and applications. One of the most common types is aspartame, known for being around 200 times sweeter than sugar and a common ingredient in carbonated beverages, desserts, and chewing gum. Sucralose, derived from sugar, offers a sweetness similar to sucrose without the added calories, making it a popular choice for baking and cooking. Stevia, a plant-based sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, has gained popularity as a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners. 

Another type, saccharin, is one of the oldest artificial sweeteners with a distinct, slightly bitter aftertaste. It is commonly used in tabletop sweeteners and diet foods. Neotame, a derivative of aspartame, boasts an even greater sweetness intensity and is heat-stable, suitable for high-temperature cooking. These diverse types of artificial sweeteners cater to various tastes and dietary preferences, providing consumers with a wide range of options to satisfy their sweet cravings without the added calories of sugar.

But although they spread like wildfire and for a while were touted as a low-calorie alternative to sugar, there have been growing concerns around whether they are really a better option at all. Recently the World Health Organisation even flagged Aspartame as a possible carcinogen, leading to widespread panic. And with the rising popularity of artificial sweeteners, an array of myths and misconceptions have spread like wildfire, often clouding the actual facts about these sugar substitutes. 

We spoke with Amita Gadre, a Nutritionist who shares nutrition myth-busters on her Instagram page (@amitagadre) to find out a bit more about the truth behind the artificial sweetener craze.

Myth #1: Consuming any amount of artificial sweeteners is ‘toxic

Truth: The most common myth/fear about artificial sweeteners is that they will cause cancer or neurological damage. Most people do not realise that where toxicity is concerned, it is the 'dose that makes the poison'. It is the same for artificial sweeteners, unless you are consuming 36 cans of Diet Coke (containing aspartame) every day, you are not going to see any ill effects. Having said that, 36 cans of diet coke in a day is going to leave you with bigger problems like caffeine-induced insomnia, than any effects from aspartame. 

Myth #2: Natural Sweeteners are the ‘healthy’ alternative 

Truth: In my clinical practice, I have seen a lot of people move to honey, jaggery, and date syrup as a 'natural sweetener' instead of zero calorie sweeteners- that is potentially dangerous for their blood sugar levels as instead of bringing the sugars under control, it can make it worse.  Another pitfall is- those who opt for sorbitol or sucralose-containing juices, chewing gums or snacks need to be careful if they already have IBS or leaky gut type gut health issues as these alternative sweeteners can worsen the condition as they cause gut dysbiosis. 

Myth #3: Artificial  Sweeteners are good for weight loss

Truth: In its simplest form, weight loss happens when you are in a calorie deficit. That is when you are eating fewer calories than you actually use. Considering this, the aim then becomes to consume as less 'empty calories' as possible or none at all. What are empty calories? those coming from sugar, jaggery, or products with added sugar like carbonated beverages. Imagine a person who is used to drinking one litre of coke every day - if this person switches to diet coke, he will see a difference in his calorie intake and hence possibly a small weight loss effect. But if you are someone who has only half tsp of sugar in your tea and drinks only one such cup every day, no cola intake or such - switching that half teaspoon of sugar to an artificial sweetener is not going to make any impact on your weight loss efforts. 

Myth #4: Eating regular sugars is detrimental 

Truth: The dose determines the poison. When consumed in moderation, nothing is harmful. eg. eating one sugar laddoo once a month is not going to be harmful. But if you make a daily habit of it, all those extra empty calories are going to pile up as fat on your body. Similarly, drinking a glass of sugar-free juice once is not going to give you any major health benefits unless you are habituated to drinking a glass of added sugar juice every day. Nutrition is more complex than just sugars and calories. eg. A sugar-free laddoo will also be harmful if consumed every day, as in that scenario it is not just the sugar but also the fat in the laddoo that comes into the picture and adds to your total calories. 

Myth #5: Sweetened desserts are the answer to sugar cravings 

Truth: I would recommend people with sugar cravings get used to natural sweetness, like that found in fruits, rather than rely on the sweetness of added sugar - that's going to do wonders. Simply because, no one absolutely no one, 'needs to eat chocolate, sweetened coffee, fruit juices, icecreams or carbonated drinks. On the other hand, intense sugar cravings often arise due to improper diets. If your meal is not meeting your protein and fibre requirements, you are going to set yourself up for intense cravings. 

If I must recommend a sweetener, I would opt for stevia (not with erythritol) or monk fruit sugar, as these seem to have the least adverse impact all around.  

Myth #6: The ‘Sugar-free’ label means that it’s a healthy product and good for nutritional balance

Truth: It is good that people now have more options and the overall awareness about their nutrition and what is going on in their food is also increasing. My worry is the divide that it is creating among people. You either are the artificial sweeteners in gospel camp or sweeteners give you cancer camp - neither is true. I don't see any impact in the already very poor global health scenarios because every sugar-free product has either high fat or high carbs - which again are not serving the purpose of a nutritional balance.