Public reaction to statistics like these inspired food manufacturers to seize a new opportunity: convince the public that artificial sweeteners could satisfy their cravings without negative health effects. Then, after a slew of studies began questioning such claims food producers saw another opportunity: sell the “natural” angle.
Nectresse™ is a response, by the makers of Splenda®, to the success of the “natural” sweetener stevia. But even sweeteners created from natural products aren’t really natural: they don’t exist as they do in nature. And any sweetener can affect your health in negative ways, leading to sweet addiction, weight gain and unhealthy eating. You can read more about these effects in my article “Sweet Addiction: Artificial Sweeteners Not So Sweet After All.“
Refined sugar can be called a “natural” product under today’s parameters: it starts with real foods like beets, cane, corn and fruits. But what happens then? Sugar found in real foods is packaged along with fiber, nutrients, healthy starches–a delivery system that doesn’t spike blood sugar and offers many health benefits.
Refined sugar is an injection of concentrated, nutrient-less carbohydrate that spikes your blood sugar in dangerous ways. Even “natural” products like agave nectar, honey, maple syrup and molasses may be highly refined and processed, moving them far from their natural state and the benefits that the whole package entails.
“Natural” sweeteners like Truvia® and Nectresse™ are derived from real food but then they are altered, processed and refined. Nutritionist JJ Virgin explains that because studies aren’t yet conclusive, stevia products must be listed as food supplements rather than sweeteners. PureVia® and Truvia® are sold as sweeteners because they are made from a derivative of the stevia plant, rebaudioside A. The FDA claims that this compound is “not stevia but a highly purified product.”
Monk fruit, like stevia, is 300 times sweeter than refined sugar. That’s what Nectresse™ is derived from. Lo Han sweetener and monk fruit sweetener, have long been used in China and contain beneficial antioxidants. Nectresse™, however, isn’t simply monk fruit. Nectresse™ also contains molasses, sugar and erythritol.
You might be wondering, how can this sugar substitute have 0 calories if it contains sugar? First of all, food producers can say something has 0 calories if it contains less than 5 calories per half teaspoon. Secondly, the sugar alcohol erythritol interferes with your body’s absorption of sugar, further lowering caloric intake.
Sugar alcohols occur in fermented foods and some plants. Dr. Braunstein explains that sugar alcohols resemble both alcohol and sugar in composition but aren’t technically either. Your body can’t completely absorb them but this also means that they can ferment in your digestive tract, causing bloating, diarrhea and gas. This kind of fermentation raises acidity in your body.
Consider the Source
Isolating any compound from its natural source changes its effects but considering how many sugar substitutes were first discovered is chilling.
Yale scientist Qing Yang conducted a mini-review of artificial sweeteners in 2010. He says that most of these were discovered when scientists violated laboratory protocol by tasting these substances and that most were never intended to be food products to begin with. Saccharin, for instance, came from research on coal tar derivatives. A scientist studying ulcer drugs produced aspartame and sucralose, the basis of Splenda®, was generated from a search for new pesticides.
Studies of the health effects from these sugar alternatives are controversial. Cyclamate is a sugar substitute that was banned in the US after being linked to cancer but it is still widely used in other countries. Because saccharin was often combined with cyclamate, it too was banned for a period. Stevia was labelled an “unsafe food additive” in 1991.
Reports of anxiety, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches and vomiting compelled the FDA to look over aspartame studies and there have been reports of similar side effects with the use of sucralose. You can read more about the possible dangers of Splenda® in my article: “Dangerous Splenda: Potential Pesticide or Artificial Sweetener?“
The results? They’re still out really. Because foods are considered safe until proven otherwise, many food derivatives are put on the market without research beforehand. There just hasn’t been enough long-term and credible studies of many sugar substitutes. Of the studies that do exist, the FDA doesn’t consider those that aren’t very controlled, very specific to humans or validated by other researchers.
While very direct physical effects may not yet be proven, there have been several substantiated studies that link the use of sugar substitutes to unhealthy eating and obesity.
Holly Strawbridge, editor of Harvard Heart Health, spoke to obesity specialist Dr. David Lugwig about artificial sweeteners. Ludwig says that when people do use such substitutes, they often fall prey to the “halo effect”: eating other unhealthy foods because they’ve reduced their caloric intake with a diet soda or a sugar-free cookie.
Using artificial sweeteners can also cause us to disassociate sweetness with calories, says Ludwig. Normally, your body regulates your intake according to signals of taste and texture. Purdue University researchers found that artificial sweeteners disrupt this ability, causing us to consume more calories than we should. That’s why sweet delivered through soda is so dangerous–it doesn’t contain the thickness that a food with that much sugar and sweetness should.
Yang reports that diet soda drinkers in the San Antonio Heart Study gained twice as much weight as people that didn’t ingest artificial sweeteners over a seven to eight-year period. This also proved true in studies of women by the American Cancer Society and the Nurse’s Health Study.
Because sugar substitutes are so much sweeter than sugar, they affect our appetite in really unhelpful ways. Research has found that these sweeteners increase appetite, partially because of the low-calorie content. What we taste isn’t matching up with the nutrition our bodies are craving.
Our bodies are wired to seek out sweetness to satisfy hunger and our brains are wired to associate sweetness with reward. That’s where addiction comes in. The super-sweetness of sugar substitutes activate the reward loop without ever giving any nutritional satisfaction–a vicious cycle.
Altering our taste buds is probably the most detrimental effect artificial sweeteners have. Ludwig explains that we become unable to taste natural sweetness in real foods and begin to disdain savory, nutritional foods that don’t contain such extreme flavors. We become unable to discern complexity of taste.
How can you rediscover the natural sweetness in real foods? You can use a substitution process to break your sweet addiction. If you drink five diet sodas a day, for example, substitute iced tea with minimally processed honey for one of those sodas tomorrow. Continue in this fashion until you’re off the diet soda and then try substituting the iced teas with water.
Avoiding processed foods can help you to avoid added sweeteners and recover your taste buds. Then you can begin tasting the natural sweetness in carrots, onions, raw milk, squash and many other whole foods. A sun-ripened tomato can feel like a burst of sweet in your mouth if your taste buds haven’t been desensitized and the nutrients and sweet taste of countless plant foods–from raw nuts to baby lettuces–can provide satisfaction in terms of taste and nutrition.
If you need to use a sweetener, consider minimally processed applesauce for baking, stevia that is really stevia, raw honey or minimally processed maple syrup. Another option? Coconut nectar is loaded with nutrients. Coconut nectar is the sap from coconut blossoms. Remember, we’re wired to crave sweet so you shouldn’t suppress that craving. Instead, discover the ways you can fulfill it as you’re meant to: eat real food.
Dr. Axe’s Key Points
- “Natural” sweeteners aren’t very natural.
- Sugar substitutes lead to weight gain.
- Artificial sweeteners affect your taste buds and lead to sweet addiction.
- Sugar substitutes rob your body of nutrients.
- Real foods have real sweetness.
- Glenn D. Braunstein, “Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Better or Worse Than the Real Thing?”
- The Huffington Post, November 2, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glenn-d-braunstein-md/artificial-sweeteners-are_b_776905.html
- Qing Yang, “Gain Weight by “Going Diet?” Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, June 2010, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892765/
- JJ Virgin, “Making Sense of the Bewildering Array of Natural Alternative Sweeteners,” JJ Virgin.com, November 26, 2012, http://jjvirgin.com/3474/making-sense-bewildering-array-natural-alternative-sweeteners/
- Holly Strawbridge, “Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-Free, But as What Cost?” Harvard Health, July 16, 2012, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030
- “Study: Artificial Sweetener May Disrupt Body’s Ability to Count Calories,” Purdue University News, June 29, 2004, http://www.purdue.edu/uns/html4ever/2004/040629.Swithers.research.html