Are Artificial Sweeteners A Healthier Choice? A Dietitian Explains


Whenever I talk about reducing processed sugars, someone will ask me about artificial sweeteners. Many people believe that artificial sweeteners are a better choice than sugar because they have no calories. But it’s not just about the calories. Here are a few things to know about artificial sweeteners.

Impact on blood sugar levels

When you consume a sugar-free product, you should have little to no effect on blood sugar levels. But artificial sweeteners can interfere with the mechanisms that control your blood sugars. Some researchers believe that the body releases insulin in response to the sweet taste, even without the presence of glucose. Others theorise the artificial sweeteners alter the gut flora balance, leading to insulin resistance. The research continues, but both sucralose and saccharin have been linked to increased insulin levels.

Impact on appetite

Artificial sweeteners are often a way that people reduce calories in order to lose weight. But recent research has shown that sweeteners like sucralose could actually increase your appetite. The problem is, your mouth is tasting the sweetness, but your body is not receiving the glucose it expects. So it encourages you to eat more in order to get the glucose.

Impact on the nervous system

Some sweeteners can even cause issues with your nervous system and brain function. Aspartame is one of the most concerning. Although some people might handle it fine, others can be sensitive to the sweetener and experience symptoms such as headaches and insomnia. But it’s also been suggested that high levels of aspartame can lead to mental disorders, compromise learning abilities and alter emotional functioning. That’s a terrifying potential side effect of your sugar-free soft drink habit!

How to spot artificial sweeteners in food

There are a number of signs that a food might contain artificial sweeteners. They include:

  • Being promoted as a ‘diet’ product – my least favourite word!
  • Being promoted as ‘low carbohydrate’  or ‘low calorie’ – particularly with protein bars and shakes
  • Labelling that claim ‘less sugar’, ‘reduced sugar’ or ‘no sugar’
  • Having a sickly sweet flavour, often with a bitter aftertaste
  • Consuming a lot of it leading to tummy upsets and bloating – a common symptom with sugar alcohols
  • An ingredient list that has aspartame, sucralose, sorbitol, maltitol, saccharin

Healthier alternatives

So if you’re going to make some sweet treats for the family, which sweetener is best? There are more natural alternatives like stevia, which may or may not suit you. I always prefer using a wholefood sweetener like mashed bananas, because it comes with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

If you prefer to use something like honey or maple syrup, try making it with half of the recipe’s amount. More often than not, recipes make foods much sweeter than they need to be!

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