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Are ‘sugar free’ alternatives a better option than sugar?

For years, people have been seeking ways to reduce their sugar intake, and the sugar-free movement has gained immense popularity. Consumers are drawn to sugar-free alternatives as a way to reduce their sugar intake and the lousy health consequences this can bring, but are these alternatives really better than sugar?

Sugar-free alternatives, such as artificial sweeteners and low calorie sweeteners, are marketed as a healthier alternative to sugar. But it’s just that – marketing.They claim to have fewer calories, less impact on blood sugar levels and be better for your teeth. While some of these claims may be true, it’s essential to understand that this doesn’t mean that sugar-free alternatives to sugar are better for your health. Let’s explore the two sugar free alternatives you will currently find in numerous products on the supermarket shelves.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substances that have no nutritional value. They are added to food and drinks to provide a sweet taste without the added calories of sugar. However, there are concerns about the potential health risks associated with artificial sweeteners. Some studies have linked them to an increased risk of certain types of cancer, while others suggest that they can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria and lead to body fat gain. Animal studies have also begun to show that, on top of the above range of health consequences, some artificial sweeteners actually raise blood glucose and insulin levels, driving the precise processes inside the body that they were designed to negate. It’s marketing that has convinced people otherwise, which is simply another reason to eat food, not junk, because we have no idea of the long-term consequences of some of these manufactured substances.

Some examples of artificial sweeteners (along with their food additive code) to avoid include:

  • Acesulphame-K (950)
  • Advantame (969)
  • Aspartame (951)
  • Aspartame-acesulphane salt (962)
  • Cyclamate (952)
  • Neotame (961)
  • Saccharin (954)
  • Steviol glycosides (960)
  • Sucralose (955)

Low calorie sweeteners

Low calorie sweeteners are the newer kids on the sweetener block. As food manufacturers look for new ways to sweeten their products by using substances the consumer may consider to be more natural, the list of low calorie sweeteners only continues to grow.

Low calorie sweeteners are usually made from sugar alcohols. While some sugar alcohols are found naturally in fruits and vegetables, the added sugar alcohols are produced artificially in very concentrated amounts. Remember that these manufactured substances are usually made to sell things, not to help people and sugar alcohols can upset the delicate balance of our internal ecosystem. Unlike sugar, which is easily digested and absorbed for energy or storage, sugar alcohols are not absorbed or completely digested in our digestive tract. This can cause digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, nausea or diarrhoea due to the fermentation of these sugar alcohols in our intestines. If you are someone who experiences digestive symptoms, you may like to start to consider if your consumption of sugar alcohols is contributing.

Some examples of low calorie sweeteners (along with their food additive code) to avoid include:

  • Maltitol (965)
  • Erythritol (968)
  • Mannitol (421)
  • Isomalt (953)
  • Sorbitol (420)
  • Lactitol (966)
  • Sucralose (955)
  • Xylitol (967)
  • Monk fruit extract (no code number associated)

The other problem with sugar-free alternatives is that people often feel like they can eat more of them because they are calorie-free/low calorie. As most of these substances are found in processed foods, this can lead to overconsuming foods of little to no nourishment which often means fewer whole real foods – the foods that offer our body the nutrients it needs to thrive – are eaten. Sugar-free alternatives are best avoided or at minimum consumed sparingly, same as sugar or any other sweetener. And for the most part, stick to sweeteners that are whole, like fruits (including dates to sweeten snacks and desserts). Some honey has health benefits and maple syrup contains trace amounts of a few nutrients. These latter two sweeteners are still best used sparingly. Aim for your sweet food to (mostly) provide you with some nutritional benefits, other than on special occasions or when you are being hosted by friends.

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