Artificial sweeteners have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few decades. It’s hard to go anywhere and not find a rainbow’s worth of those little packets nearby (or someone who doesn’t have one stowed in her purse). And though there always seems to be one that is more popular than another, the ubiquity of these additives has made many of us forget to question how they might be affecting our health.
Common and often easily accepted myths about artificial sweeteners and the foods and drinks that contain them perpetuate this as well. Here four we often hear:
Myth #1: My body can effectively get rid of the chemicals in sweeteners.
That is only somewhat true. Your body’s amazing detox capabilities do have their limits. “Artificial sweeteners introduce yet another load of chemicals that your liver has to detoxify,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “This can burden your system, particularly if you consume sweeteners regularly.” Interestingly, saccharin ends up in your bladder in the same form, since your body doesn’t have a detox pathway for it at all. (This is concerning, since bladder cancer is the most significant observation in animal research on this sweetener.) And the constituents of aspartame pass into the brain because they also naturally occur in food—but the concentration in sweeteners is many times higher.
Myth #2: Non-caloric sweeteners derived from stevia are the best choices.
This is an important one to understand. Stevia is an herb harvested from the leaf or root of the yerba dulce (stevia) shrub, which has been used for eons and grows in South America and Southeast Asia. But raw stevia is not the same as new stevia-based products. These are often bleached, and include fillers and a highly altered version of stevia (so much so that these options aren’t the same as the natural form at the molecular level), notes Powell. As such, the closest you can come to natural, pure stevia is the healthiest option. Look for a version with the fewest ingredients possible. It works well in warm liquids and baking; you may find finely ground versions best for dissolving in cold drinks.
Myth #3: Diet sodas are better for me than regular ones.
Sure, you can save about 100 calories per serving and reduce your sugar intake by picking diet versions, but they offer no nutritional value. Furthermore, a study in the journal Physiology and Behavior found that habitual diet soda sippers have more widespread activity in the reward processing regions of the brain when they consume other sweet foods and drinks than those who don’t regularly opt for these beverages. That means they’re more likely to overindulge in treats when they have them, which can pose a threat to maintaining a healthy weight. Try giving up chemical-filled diet beverages of all kinds for healthier options, like natural fruit-flavored seltzers, antioxidant-rich teas or plain old water, which can bring your body far better hydration and other benefits. You may have heard about a study showing that diet soda helps people lose weight better than water, but keep in mind: That research was funded by the American Beverage Association.
Myth #4: If cookies are made with artificial sweeteners, I can eat more of them.
It’s important to remember that sugar is only one caloric component of baked goods. Flour, oils, nuts and other ingredients can add up, too. And when sugar is removed, fat is often added to improve the final product’s taste. If you’re eating more than you would if the cookies contained sugar…well…you can do the math. Some packaged cookie manufacturers also use sorbitol to sweeten sugar-free cookies; consuming too much of this natural sugar alcohol—found in blackberries, nectarines, apples and other fruits—can cause gas, cramps or other digestive distress.
From the Canyon Ranch Nutritionists
We recommend eliminating artificial sweeteners from your diet in favor of small amounts of natural sweeteners like honey and molasses—even a bit of real sugar, in occasional treats (many Canyon Ranch Dessert Recipes use cane or brown sugar, for example). However, like anything regarding your diet, you need to make the decisions you feel are best for you. If you are someone who can’t imagine life without artificial sweeteners, you may consider trying to slowly reduce your intake to give your palate time to adjust. With time, you may not miss them as much as you thought you might.