The Skinny on Non-Caloric Sweeteners
Find out how non-caloric sweeteners impact your metabolic health and weight control. Dietitians have known that chemicals and even “natural” extracts of plants increase our craving for sweet-tasting foods. We’ve suspected that this confuses and irritates the body.
Now there is enough evidence for the World Health Organization to warn that sugar substitutes do not help with weight control. Despite the rise in consumption of diet foods and drinks, the epidemics of obesity and diabetes persist. This suggests that diet foods and drinks with non-caloric sweeteners may not be as helpful as previously believed.
There are many reasons to avoid artificial sweeteners like the impact on the gut microbiome, intestinal barrier integrity, and bioaccumulation of less than desirable bio-products. In this blog, we will delve into the impact of non-caloric sweeteners on metabolic health and weight control.
What are Non-Caloric Sweetners?
Non-caloric sweeteners are sugar substitutes that provide sweetness without adding calories or sugar. They can be 100 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar, requiring only a small amount to achieve the desired flavor. However, they lack beneficial nutrients like vitamins, fiber, minerals, or antioxidants. Non-caloric sweeteners can be classified into three categories: artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and plant-derived sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are laboratory-made sweeteners. Some of the approved artificial sweeteners are acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), advantame, aspartame (Equal), neotame, saccharin (Sweet N Low), sucralose (Splenda). (I)
Sugar alcohols are usually derived synthetically from sugars. They are used in many processed foods. They are not as sweet as artificial sweeteners, and they add texture and taste to foods like chewing gum and hard candies. However, they can cause gastrointestinal irritation in some individuals, leading to bloating, gas or diarrhea. Examples include: erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol.
Plant-Derived Non-caloric Sweeteners:
Plant-derived non-caloric sweeteners, such as monk fruit and stevia, are typically less processed and have minimal caloric content. Monk fruit, also known as lo han guo, is a small round fruit native to China. Monk fruit sweeteners can be 100-250 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia, derived from a shrub native to South America, contains the compound – steviol glycosides – which is responsible for its sweetness.
Non-Caloric Sweeteners and Metabolic Health:
Non-caloric sweeteners are often chosen to decrease calorie intake, but their impact on weight control is counterintuitive due to their effects on insulin.
After we eat, foods are broken down in the stomach and small intestine. Proteins are broken into amino acids. Fats are broken into fatty acids. Carbohydrates, which are chains of sugars, are broken into glucose, a simple sugar that can be used as energy by all cells in the body. Dietary fiber is not broken down; it moves through us without being absorbed.
It is important to understand that certain foods, especially refined carbohydrates, can cause blood sugar to increase more significantly than other foods. The rise in blood sugar stimulates the release of insulin. Insulin serves as a key regulator of energy metabolism, but it also plays a role in fat storage.
When blood glucose levels rise, the pancreas releases insulin to help transport glucose into cells. Once the cells have obtained sufficient energy or glucose, a small amount of glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen for future energy needs. However, if glucose levels exceed the storage capacity of glycogen, the excess glucose is converted into fat and stored.
- When we eat, insulin goes up, and we store energy as glycogen and fat. High insulin levels encourage fat storage.
- When we drink a diet soda by itself, insulin goes up without any calories being consumed. Your body goes into fat storage mode.
- When we fast, insulin goes down and we use our stored energy (fat). Low insulin levels encourage glycogen and fat burning.
- Insulin, not calories, ultimately drives obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Non-Caloric Sweeteners and Insulin Response:
Surprisingly, artificial sweeteners have been found to increase insulin levels despite lacking calories or sugar (2, 3). Consuming non-caloric sweeteners triggers insulin release, which can contribute to weight gain. Additionally, non-caloric sweeteners may increase cravings. The brain may perceive an incomplete sense of reward by sensing sweetness without calories, which may then cause overcompensation and increased appetite and cravings (3).
Tips for Reducing Your Taste for Sweets
- Eat More Whole Foods. If most of your food comes from a box or carton, rethink your choices. Even seemingly “healthy” processed foods often contain non-caloric sweeteners.
- Steer your shopping cart away from the center aisles of the store, where the processed foods are stocked. Load up on healthier whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, nuts, beans, and legumes.
- Substitute fresh fruit, if an evening meal feels incomplete without a sweet finish.
- Occasionally indulge in lightly sweetened treats with small amounts of added sugar, honey or maple syrup.
While reducing added dietary sugars is beneficial, replacing them with artificial sweeteners may not be the ideal solution for weight management. The primary advantage of non-caloric sweeteners lies in calorie reduction, but weight gain is primarily driven by insulin levels, not just calorie intake. Non-caloric sweeteners can stimulate insulin release, potentially resulting in weight gain and increased cravings for sweet foods. To prevent weight gain, it is recommended to eliminate added sugars from the diet without replacing them with non-caloric sweeteners.
If you are not sure where to start, but want help with your health? Book a free discovery call to see how I can help you optimize your gut health and ultimately your overall health.