The Paradox of “Zero Calorie” Sweeteners


This is our final installment in the Sugar series for now (Part 1 and Part 2 covered other aspects of sugars). We have covered glucose, fructose and will talk about artificial sweeteners today.

There are five different types of artificial sweeteners and they are found in more than 6,000 products in the supermarket today. They are promoted to be a great substitute for sugar for diabetics, will help us lose weight and contain zero calories. They are put in everything from yogurt and sugar free candy to sports drinks. The truth is, they cause metabolic confusion setting us up for weight gain, worsening insulin sensitivity and disruption of the micro flora in our gut. All combined, they send us down the road to cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and not to mention cancer.

You may know them by their more common names such as Equal, Splenda and Sweet One but they are often hidden by their chemical names on labels. Let’s cover a few of the more common ones today. Equal is the chemical Aspartame. Aspartame by far is the most commonly used artificial sweetener. It is 180 times sweeter than sugar but you see people putting 2 packs or more in their morning coffee. Sweet One is chemically known as Acesulfame-K and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Splenda or Sucralose is 600 times as sweet. Are you on sugar overload yet? What signal is all this sweetness sending to our brains? Not a very good one and here is why. When we eat something sweet our brain releases the chemical dopamine, which activates our brain’s reward center. Once we reach a certain level of calories from the food, the hormone Leptin is released telling us that we are satisfied and we stop eating. Enter the metabolic confusion caused by artificial sweeteners. Because of their sweetness, sugar on crack, they light up our reward center BUT contain zero calories. No calories, no leptin release. No leptin release, no brakes for your brain or appetite. You know where this is headed don’t you? Weight gain and decreased insulin sensitivity. Next, because they are so effective at stimulating the sweet receptors on our tongues, we will have to use more to get the same level of sweetness over time. We essentially put our sweet taste buds to sleep requiring more sweetness to wake them up. The vicious cycle of carbohydrate craving and overeating is born hence the addiction.

Next, let’s cover the “natural” sweeteners. There are some known “health benefits” to these that one could argue make them a better option. Stevia is extracted from the leaves of the Stevia plant. It has been used for centuries for its sweetness and for medicinal purposes. It is 200 times as sweet as sugar, has zero calories and has been shown to lower high blood pressure in some and blood sugar in diabetics. Stevia today can be blended with dextrose, or maltodextrin to help improve its taste. Check the label and look for additives and fillers that you want to avoid. Erythritol and Xylitol are sugar alcohols. Erythritol is naturally found in certain fruits but can be processed from corn, which most likely has been genetically modified in this country. It is 70% as sweet as sugar and contains less than 1 calorie per gram. Xylitol, made from birch trees, is as sweet as sugar and contains 2.4 calories/gram. If used in large quantities though they both can cause gastrointestinal upset.

The world of artificial sweeteners is complicated and complex. In a nutshell, avoid the artificial sweeteners completely. Limit the natural ones as much as possible but your best option is to use none. In a future article, we will discuss the healthy sugars like honey, maple syrup etcetera and are they a better substitute for sugar in our diets.

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Treves Janszen

Treves Janszen

Nutrition Coach at Thrive Fitness
Treves is a Level 1 Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition. She has been involved with fitness & nutrition for almost 10 years. Along with being a Nutrition Coach, Treves has 30+ years of healthcare experience as a Registered Nurse. In her spare time, Treves like to read, cook and lay by the pool (when it's sunny, of course!).
Treves Janszen