Many folks think that if they just swap out sugary foods and drinks for their sugar-free counterparts, they’re in the clear. Yet many of the most common artificial sweeteners just present other challenges to your health.
It was a point made clear this month when the World Health Organization released their findings that, based on “limited evidence,” aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
“Cancer is one of the leading causes of death globally. Every year, 1 in 6 people die from cancer. Science is continuously expanding to assess the possible initiating or facilitating factors of cancer, in the hope of reducing these numbers and the human toll,” said Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, WHO. “The assessments of aspartame have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies.”
One study that found a relationship was published last year in PLOS Medicine and analyzed data from over 100,000 French adults. Its authors found that
artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame and acesulfame-K), which are used in many food and beverage brands worldwide, were associated with increased cancer risk.
They also found that aspartame was associated with an elevated risk of breast and obesity-related cancers (22% and 15% higher, respectively). A recent study of Spanish adults, on the other hand, found no association – except for some cancers among diabetic patients. A recent review found likewise.
Regardless, the reality is that a healthful diet is one that’s focused on real food, with minimal intake of synthetic ingredients and ultra-processed products – the delivery system for a whole lot of the aspartame and other chemical sweeteners that get consumed.
But let’s face it: Most of us enjoy something a little sweet now and then, and a modest amount of more natural sweeteners such as local honey, molasses, agave, or pureed fruit isn’t apt to do much damage.
(How much is too much? According to one notable study, to prevent decay, no more than 3% of your daily calories should come from added sugars. If you eat about 2000 calories a day, that’s 15 grams max – about a quarter of a 20-ounce bottle of Coke.)
Yet there actually are some zero-calorie sweeteners available that are safer options than their chemical counterparts.
Sugar alcohols are perhaps the most common. These are the sweeteners that end in -ol: sorbitol, maltitol, and so on. Two sugar alcohols in particular may actually carry some dental benefits, as well. Erythritol and xylitol have both been shown to help prevent tooth decay by inhibiting biofilm (plaque) formation. Because these sweeteners are derived from plants – especially corn – you should be sure that any brand you choose is non-GMO. And don’t worry about the gastrointestinal troubles you often read about in conjunction with sugar alcohols. The side effect is real, to be sure, but to trigger it, you’d have to gobble up a lot more than you could comfortably consume.
Another option is stevia. Derived from a plant species called Stevia rebaudiana, stevia is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar but not metabolized by the body as sugar. 100% pure stevia extract or liquid stevia is your best option, as powdered blends typically mix the stevia with other ingredients, not all of them desirable. For instance, Stevia in the Raw also contains corn-derived dextrose (a simple sugar that’s basically the same as glucose), while Truvia blends stevia with erythritol but also contains some mysterious “natural flavors,” which are generally less natural, more chemical.
Another healthier, plant-derived, zero-calorie option is monk fruit, which is up to 200 times sweeter than sugar. As with stevia, most of it gets excreted before it gets absorbed. Also like stevia, it’s usually blended with other ingredients into a powdered form. Some are good and some, not so good, so read labels carefully. This buying guide offers a nice overview of the options available.