Americans have been using artificial sweeteners for decades in an effort to cut back on sugar and prevent weight gain. Aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are just a few artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA as food additives. But in recent years, these sweeteners have been linked to several serious health complications including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Here’s a closer look at the potential dangers of artificial sweeteners, as well as healthier alternatives that won’t increase your risk for health problems.
The hidden dangers of artificial sweeteners
Many people assume artificial sweeteners are better for you than sugar. But when you consume artificial sweeteners, your body will still release insulin even though they lack calories. The spike in insulin can disrupt hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, and lead to overeating. This chain reaction increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, weight gain, and heart disease.
Artificial sweeteners are commonly made from sugar beets, soy, and corn crops that have been genetically modified and treated with pesticides. These GMOs can lead to lowered immunity, infertility, and cancer. Additionally, artificial sweeteners can “numb” your taste buds, and make them less receptive to natural, healthier forms of sugar commonly found in fruits and honey.
Artificial sweeteners to avoid
- Aspartame. This sweetener is commonly linked to headaches and high blood glucose levels, and is found in most diet soda brands.
- Sucralose. This sweetener can disrupt your gut health, and lead to bloating and weight gain.
- High-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is found in many processed foods, including condiments, breakfast cereals, and bread products, and increases the risk of obesity and heart disease.
- Saccharin. Saccharin is commonly linked to nausea, digestive problems, and cancer, and is used to sweeten many children’s medications like cough syrup and chewable tablets.
Healthy alternatives to try
- Stevia. This natural sweetener is extracted from leaves of the Stevia plant and contains zero calories. Follow the directions when using stevia, since the liquid extract form is significantly sweeter than its powdered form, and a drop or two may be sufficient.
- Raw honey. Honey is packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants and promotes good digestion. Read the ingredients label to make sure the honey is in its true form and lacks additives — including sugar.
- Maple syrup. Maple syrup is high in minerals and low in calories, and packed with anti-inflammatory compounds that fight cancer and heart disease. Look for brands that contain 100 percent maple syrup and lack HFCS and natural flavors.
- Coconut sugar. The taste of coconut sugar rivals that of brown sugar, and coconut sugar is low on the glycemic index. Substitute white cane sugar with coconut sugar in baking recipes, and benefit from fewer calories.
- Cinnamon. Though not exactly a sweetener, this spice can be used to enhance the flavor of foods like applesauce, sweet potatoes, and chicken. Cinnamon is high in antioxidants and offers anti-inflammatory properties that ward off cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Xylitol. This sweetener is a type of sugar alcohol that looks and tastes like sugar, but is lower on the glycemic index and has fewer calories. It may also improve dental health, which is why it is often found in gym and breath mints. Xylitol may cause gastrointestinal side effects for some people, including bloating, cramping, and diarrhea, so use with caution until you know how it affects you. Xylitol is also highly toxic to dogs, so keep it safely out of reach
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Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on August 18, 2017