Are artificial sweeteners safe?

My column a few weeks ago titled, Pure, White and Deadly generated a lot of comments, personal stories, and questions. I want to thank each of you who wrote in to share your own experiences with the downsides of sugar and for completing my sugar research survey.

One of the questions many of you had was if I recommend artificial sweeteners and natural sugar alternatives. Today, I’ll try to bring some clarity to this complex and confusing subject.

Artificial sweeteners

If you are a regular reader of my column, you know I’m not a fan of highly processed foods that are scientifically engineered in manufacturing plants. I don’t consider artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin to be real whole foods. In fact, I think they are very damaging and should be avoided at all costs.

If you consume artificial sweeteners because you think they will help you lose weight, think again. The reality is, these chemical substitutes can seriously distort your biochemistry, alter your ability to control calories, stimulate your appetite, increase cravings, and accelerate fat storage and weight gain.

The biggest concern research has found with artificial sweeteners is that high doses of them over time can lead to neurotoxicity. Most of the studies have been done on animals and have found that the chemical make up of artificial sweeteners has the ability to damage the brain or disrupt its chemical balance and suggests a wide range of potential risks.

Dr. Joseph Mercola believes aspartame is a bigger public health threat than high fructose corn syrup that can lead to birth defects, cancer, weight gain, and brain tumours.

Natural alternative sweeteners

Many natural sugar alternatives or natural derivatives are finding their way on to supermarket shelves.

Agave – Some of you have switched from refined white sugar to agave on the advice that it’s a safe, healthy alternative and low glycemic. While I’m sure you know high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad for you, what you might not know is that agave is actually worse than HFCS. Agave is much higher in fructose than any other commercial sweetener.

Dr. Mercola explains that fructose is broken down as fat in your body and is very hard on the liver. Fructose also turns off your body’s appetite-control system, leads to weight gain and abdominal obesity, decreased HDL, increased LDL, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and high blood pressure – which are contributing symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Over time, consumption of fructose leads to insulin resistance, and can promote type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Sugar Alcohols – Xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol are not as sweet as sugar, don’t impact the blood sugar as much and contain fewer calories. However, they but aren’t fully absorbed in the body and may cause bloating, gas and diarrhea. In moderation, xylitol has the least amount of side effects and could be fairly safe as you transition away from refined white sugar.

Stevia – Is a low-calorie, plant-based sweetener derived from the South American Stevia plant. It is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. The FDA has yet to rule on whether it is a safe food additive but Dr. Mercola believes it to be the best sweetener available today. It’s best to buy the green liquid or green leaf powder as these have been less processed that the white powders and liquids. Some people find it has a bitter aftertaste.

My favourite sweeteners

If you are going to eat sweet foods at all, my top picks for added sweeteners are fresh dates, maple syrup and honey. But remember these are still very sweet, they will boost your blood sugars and can cause damage if eaten frequently in high amounts. They are meant to be used sparingly for the occasional treat.

Here’s the bottom line on sweeteners:

The long range goal is to break your addiction and cravings for sweet foods to prevent any serious health concerns from arising – you do not want to be eating sweetened foods on a regular basis.

If you have any insulin issues you should be avoiding all sweeteners because they can decrease your sensitivity to insulin.

Many of the artificial sweeteners and new naturally derived products have not been on the market long enough and not been tested enough for us to really know the full spectrum of long-term impacts.

Artificial sweeteners are not real whole foods. They are processed and altered and our bodies really don’t know how to digest and assimilate them.

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