There are few people who would argue that sugar consumption in the western world far exceeds healthy limits. Our desire for sweet foods has been associated with a significant increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic disorders, mood disorders as well as being implicated in, or exacerbating almost every health condition. This is because sugar induces inflammation, hormone disruption and oxidative stress.
Why do we crave so much sugar? Because it is highly addictive.
Whilst sugar occurs in natural foods, such as fruit, the fibre and other nutrients help our bodies to metabolise the sugar whilst also sending signals to satiety centres to let us know that we are full. By contrast, eating sugar in processed form, means we are consuming no nutrients at all and will actually leave you craving more. And so the addiction begins.
The added sugars lurking in processed foods is a major contributor to our over consumption of sweet food and drinks. One of the biggest culprits in terms of sugar loading is without doubt, soft drinks. They contain no nutrients and no fibre, yet are very high in sugar and calories.
With growing awareness of the dangers of excess sugar, alongside the popularity of soft drinks, other calorie free solutions have emerged. While the ‘diet’ or zero calorie label may seem enticing, these artificial alternatives are no better for our health. In fact, most of the time, they are far worse.
Here is a break down of some of the most common zero calorie artificial sweeteners commonly used.
Sodium saccharin (E954)
Sodium saccharin was the first of the artificial sweeteners, discovered completely by accident in the 1800’s when 2 scientists noticed that a derivative of the chemical they were working with tasted sweet. Saccharin is usually described as being 300-400 times sweeter than sucrose with a fraction of the calories. It has been widely used in ‘diet’ soft drinks, as well as in pill form to be added to tea and coffee.
Although saccharin has been implicated in some studies that suggest carcinogenicity (potential to cause cancer, particularly bladder cancers), these were animal studies and have not yet been replicated.
Research also suggests that despite the lower calorie content, saccharin can cause more weight gain than sucrose. Why? Because it can negatively influence or metabolic rate, making it harder for our bodies to break down fat.
It’s a big no from us.
Aspartame joined the artificial sweetener market in 1965. It is a combination of two amino acids, being L-phenylalanine and L-aspartic acid. It is 200 times sweeter than sugarcane and widely available under the trademarks, Nutrasweet and Equal.
Early studies for aspartame revealed serious safety concerns including neurological side effects such as seizure disorders and even increased risk of brain tumours.
Reported side effects include behavioural changes, vision disturbances, mood disorders, headaches, seizures and cardiac arrest. In addition, aspartame is not heat stable, possibly increasing the injurious effects if the product is subject to heat.
This means it is unsafe to use in baking and in our books, unsafe to use whatsoever.
Acesulphame potassium (E950)
Another accidental discovery, Acesulphame K is both a flavour enhancer as well as a sweetener. Like aspartame, it is 200 times sweeter than sugarcane. It is a lesser known but extensively used sweetener, particularly in soft drinks, combined with other sweeteners such as sucralose to decrease the bitter aftertaste.
Safety concerns have been raised and subsequently dismissed for this sweetener, so it is quite a controversial subject. However, this sweetener does contain the carcinogen methylene chloride, which when over consumed, has been linked to side effects such as headaches, depression, nausea, liver implications, blurred vision and confusion.
Our thoughts? Best avoided.
Sucralose was discovered by chemists working on insecticide development and is made from chlorinated sugar. Believe it or not but this substance is even sweeter than previous artificial sweeteners mentioned... It is about 3 times the sweetness of aspartame and twice as sweet as saccharin!
Reported side effects of sucralose include anxiety and other neurological disorders, joint pain, digestive issues and headaches. However, these effects remain unsubstantiated and unacknowledged by manufacturers.
It is also claimed that sucralose is stable to heat and therefore safe to use in baking. However, in another study, it was found that when sucralose was subjected to high temperatures, potentially toxic compounds were formed. So once again, information is inconsistent and rather confusing.
Our stance? Keep it at a distance.
Zero-calorie sweeteners which are derived from nature... A far better option!
Stevia rebaudiana (also called Sweetleaf) is a plant indigenous to South America. It’s characteristic sweet leaves contain, as well as other nutrients, two glycoside components called Steviosides and Rebaudosides that produce its sweetness.
As well as historical use of Stevia, safety has been demonstrated in a number of studies (including Stevia extract), with some even suggesting certain health benefits. Some of these benefits include blood sugar control, helping to lower blood pressure, as well as healthy weight management.
Something to note: It is very important to check where stevia is sourced, as well as manufacturing methods used. Sourcing and manufacturing significantly impacts the health and safety of produce (this applies to everything we consume).
At Nexba, our suppliers of Stevia are heavily regulated to ensure premium quality and minimal depletion of nutrients.
Erythritol is classed as an alcohol sugar, or polyol, which occurs naturally in certain fruits (for example grapes and watermelon). It can also be made on an industrial scale. The zero-calorie substance is approximately 60-70% as sweet as sugar and is often used as a bulking agent in combination with other sweeteners, including stevia.
Studies to date have concluded this sweetener to be safe, with no toxicity demonstrated and no impact on glucose or insulin levels. In fact, like stevia, there are some studies showing possible beneficial effects. This includes having a potential protective effect on lining in blood vessels and improved vascular health.
Again checking sources and manufacturing methods is important. Commercial manufacturing may involve the fermentation of sugars in certain fruits, or glucose derived from corn, which may be genetically modified.
The Erythritol used in our Nexba beverages is from non-GMO fermented starches in fruits and vegetables.
So there you have it... A break down on the most common drink sweeteners. We know it’s a lot of information to take in so here are some key take out messages:
Choose calorie free sweeteners derived from plants, that is, stevia/erythritol blends (however be mindful of manufacturing processes and where the substance is sourced).
Use small quantities. As you will have gathered, the calorie-free sweeteners are significantly sweeter than sugarcane so you don’t need to use much.
Sweeteners to avoid: Sodium saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulphame potassium and Sucralose.