Are artifically sweetened foods a healthy choice?

Living in a world affected by an obesity epidemic has led to an increase in ‘dietary’ products on the market that are primarily pumped with artificial sweeteners, synthetic flavours and preservatives, targeting health conscious individuals as a ‘healthy alternative’ to sugar-laden snacks and beverages. Upon closer inspection of these foods, the ingredients list is usually comprised of less nutritious actual foods but mainly numbers representing synthetically and artificially made chemicals imposing a desired flavour and texture. My issue is that these chemical-laden foods are not only are they potentially harmful but are being promoted as good for the body and are replacing nutritious snacks as a ‘healthy’ alternative.
So let’s look at some of the common sweeteners:
  • Sucralose i.e. ‘Splenda’ (# 955)
What is it? An artificial sweetener containing Chlorine, commonly found in sugar-free beverages and foods, sports supplements (e.g. protein powders, pre-workout stimulants), protein bars.
Adverse effects - Commonly causes gastrointestinal discomfort due to changes in probiotic bacteria in the intestine, raises the pH levels in the intestine. Long term – may contribute to digestive/immune issues  due to changes in good bacteria. Most evidence is inconclusive.
  • Aspartame (# 951)
What is it? An artificial sweetener synthetically created in a reaction with amino acids. Commonly found in Equal, sugar-free foods, chewing gum and beverages.
Adverse effects - The use of this sweetener is controversial as evidence has been indicated that it is carcinogenic, causing tumours in animal subjects. Recently, ingestion of aspartame-containing beverages has been strongly linked to increasing preterm delivery in pregnant women. Anecdotal reports suggest Aspartame may cause headaches.
  • Maltitol (# 965)
What is it? A sugar alcohol, created as a product of the hydrogenation of D-maltose (a sugar obtained by starch). Found mainly in protein bars, sugar-free chocolate/lollies, chewing gum, dietary meals, baked goods.
Adverse effects - Large quantities can have a laxative effect, cause discomfort such as bloating and abdominal gas due to fermentation by bacteria in the large colon.   
  • Acesulfame potassium (# 950)
What is it? An artificial sweetener synthesized by methylation of oxathiazin dioxide and crystallization, potassium hydroxide is added to obtain the salt. Commonly found in chewing gum, sugar-free mints, instant coffee, carbonated drinks, puddings, icecream, confectionary.
Adverse effects – Over 100 peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that this is perfectly safe, however it is often found in foods combined with numerous other artificial sweeteners and rarely on its own. Furthermore, some of the studies carried out with this sweetener had major design flaws therefore the results may be inconclusive.
As an alternative to these additives, there are plant-derived sugar alternatives that are deemed safe and extremely low in kilojoules. These include:
  • Erythritol (# 968)
What is it? A sugar alcohol manufactured from glucose, occurs naturally in some fruits and fermented foods. 60-70% as sweet as table sugar, with 1/60th the energy as sucrose. Found in confectionary, nutritional foods, some beverages.  
Adverse effects – Unlike other sugar alcohols, less likely to cause gastric discomfort and bloating that occurs with overconsumption.  
  • Xylitol (# 967)
What is it? A sugar alcohol naturally occurring in fruit such as berries, as well as corn, contains half the energy as sucrose. Can be synthetically made from glucose. Used more commonly in sugar-free chewing gum (found in health food stores) and as a sugar alternative in cooking and baked goods, some healthy snack varieties.
Adverse effects – None although over consumption (large quantities) may cause gastrointestinal discomfort and laxative effect. Xylitol chewing gum has the added benefit of anti tooth-decaying properties as it may help to remineralize tooth enamel and promotes plaque reduction due to antibacterial action.  
  • Stevia
What is it? A plant native to North and South America, the sweet compounds (steviol glycosides) are extracted from the leaves and resemble a white powder which can be added to foods and drinks or used in commercial nutritional foods and beverages. Extremely low in calories and only a small amount used at a time.  
Adverse effects – Despite controversy, steviol glycosides have been concluded as safe by the World Health Organisation who performed a thorough investigation. Makes a great alternative to sugar in hot drinks such as tea and coffee, some people are sensitive to the slight bitter aftertaste.   
  • Thaumatin (# 957)
What is it? A protein, manufactured from the fruit of the West African perennial plant Thaumatococcus daniellii. Used as a flavour enhancer and sweetner in some natural protein powders, nutritional commercially produced foods.
Adverse effects – None known, rarely people can have an allergic response (common in plant-derived compounds) Like other sweeteners, over-consumption may have a laxative effect.   
So how should you incorporate these into your diet?
Just like most other things we consume, they should be used in moderation but always choose the better alternative where possible. Sugar-free and diet foods should never replace nutritious whole foods, choose variety and engage in mindful eating – if you feel like sugar, have a small amount and ENJOY it. Personally, I don’t trust things that are over-processed and chemically and synthetically fortified with flavour, to me it just doesn’t seem right. Furthermore, mentally depriving yourself and feeling as though you’re ‘dieting’ can do more damage than good. Studies have shown that consumption of sugar-free foods can in fact lead to weight gain and not reduce hunger signals. Where as lean protein and small amounts of good fats (fat doesn’t make you fat!) can stave away hunger and give satisfaction for hours later.    
Here are my choices for a healthy and sustainable snack (when you’re really craving sugar):
  • Apple slices with 100% natural nut butter (1 tbsp almond or cashew spread)
  • Thin buckwheat or rye crackers (Kavli brand are quite good) with thin slice of organic cheese or cottage cheese with tomato slices.
  • Natural yoghurt with protein powder and chopped fruit.
  • Small handful of trail mix (try to keep dried fruit to a minimum)
  • 3 fresh dates with 6 raw almonds
  • 2 boiled eggs with 1 tsp good quality mayonnaise or mustard.
  •  Can of tuna (low mercury) on rye crackers
  • Natural protein shake (Designer Physique, Vital Greens or Sun Warrior brand)
  • Roasted edamame beans or chickpeas
  • Lean turkey or chicken rolled up with alfalfa sprouts (really tasty!)
  • 50g Hummus and vegetable sticks (carrot, zucchini or celery)
**A handy resource to keep on you is a book that relays what additive numbers represent what compounds, for example - 'The Chemical Maze' is a good handbag size one, also a book called 'Decoding Food Additives'**