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Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad for You? Tips for Gut Health

Do you know which specific food sweetener to choose and when to use it to ensure your optimal gut health and fat loss? You can unlock the secrets to maintain a lean, healthy physique with this detailed list of natural and artificial sweeteners.

Optimize Gut Health and Fat Loss: Choosing the Right Sweeteners

Sugar plays a controversial role in the food industry because so many people are developing health problems from eating too much of it.

As a result, people are seeking healthier sweetener alternatives – but often face challenges distinguishing truly good options from bad ones.

Below is a list of popular sweeteners, including what science has to say about their possible benefits and disadvantages.

Additionally, I weigh in with my opinions as someone who has decades of practical experience coaching clients in health and fitness.

Artificial Sweeteners vs Natural Sweeteners: Your Complete Guide

Table sugar is ubiquitous in the modern food system yet offers just empty calories lacking vitamins and minerals.

Brown sugar differs from white sugar in production methods and contains a bit more molasses but only slightly increases mineral content.

High white or brown sugar intake is problematic; curbing usage can absolutely benefit health.

Science has established an association between excessive sugar intake and an increased risk of developing obesity, dental diseases, mental health conditions, cardiovascular disease, heart failure, heart attacks, strokes, metabolic syndrome, joint pain, skin aging, liver damage, kidney issues, and poor sexual health.

Everything You Need to Know about White Sugar Substitutes

Basically, the research tells us that excessive sugar intake increases your risk of dying prematurely.

However, just because standard white sugar is problematic, doesn’t mean you should eat a limitless amount of alternative sweeteners either.

The goal should be moderation for all sweeteners – including standard white sugar, certainly, but really you want to keep a watchful eye on your intake of all sweeteners.

This is partly because the long-term impacts of different sweeteners on gut health and microbiome need further research.

Can Sugar Alternatives Hurt Your Gut?

Are food sweeteners good for you or bad for you?

There is a saying in the medical community that “genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle habits pull the trigger.”

The point is that your genes aren’t necessarily your destiny – because your lifestyle habits are what often determine what genes are turned ON or OFF.

Your typical weekly eating menu is a lifestyle habit. It, too, influences the expression of your genes.

mature healthy chef preparing dessert using food sweeteners

Food sweeteners are included on the ingredients list of a startling amount of products at your grocery store.

You’re probably consuming more food sweeteners than you realize.

So the big question is, are those food sweeteners you’re consuming impacting your genes in a positive or negative way?

Epigenetics is an area of scientific research that focuses on how your lifestyle – your daily habits and your daily environment – impacts how your genes operate.

One aspect of epigenetics and daily habits that sometimes confuses people is the difference between nutrients and absorption.

You can spend a lot of money on quality nutritious foods and supplements, but it won’t make much of a difference if your body isn’t absorbing those nutrients internally.

This is where gut health comes into play:

  • When your gut health is excellent, so is your nutrient absorption.

A growing body of evidence suggests that gut health and the microbiome are likely to be more important than previously realized and may hold the key to understanding and treating a wide range of health issues.

 

The human gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiome.

This complex ecosystem consists of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes that play a crucial role in maintaining overall health.

Research has shown that the gut microbiome influences various aspects of human physiology (including digestion, nutrient absorption, immune function, and mental health) and that microbiome imbalances are linked to inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

As scientists continue to uncover the intricate relationships between the gut microbiome and human health, it is becoming increasingly evident that maintaining a healthy and diverse gut microbiome is essential for preventing disease and promoting overall well-being.

The key to all of this is likely found in balancing sweetness with nutrition.

Benefits of Food Sweeteners: Your Health Guide for Weight Loss

Various natural and artificial sweeteners are available, each with differences in nutritional value and health impacts.

Here is a quick overview of food sweeteners – one by one – with their associated pros and cons.

High-fructose corn syrup has become a common culprit, used abundantly in processed foods and linked to weight gain, liver damage, and other problems.

However, artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose are not necessarily a foolproof substitute for sugar.

Natural Sweeteners

Some sweeteners derived from natural sources may offer more nutrients and antioxidants compared to refined sugar.

Maple syrup and honey contain compounds like polyphenols, minerals like manganese, and potential antimicrobial properties.

Palm sugar, coconut sugar, and molasses also provide some minerals. Stevia leaf extracts offer sweetness with minimal calories and may help lower blood pressure, though its impact on gut health might not be positive.

Monk fruit extract contains beneficial antioxidants, while dates offer fiber and potassium (though dates may not be ideal for people with mold sensitivities).

Alternative Sugars

Cane sugar contains slightly more nutrients than white sugar, given less processing.

Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining that contains iron, magnesium, and antioxidants.

Agave nectar is sometimes a vegan-friendly substitute, though still high in calories and fructose.

Though imperfect, these alternatives may be useful as occasional substitutes for white sugar.

My Personal Experiment with Food Sweeteners

I’ve been experimenting recently with reducing my intake of the substitute sweeteners such as stevia, maltitol, and erythritol.

What I like about these sweeteners is that they have almost no calories and taste good.

My concern, however, is that these sweeteners are messing with my gut health, which then negatively impacts my nutrient absorption.

I eat an anti-inflammatory diet. That means I consume mostly vegetables – and then some meat, a little fruit, and a bit of fermented food.

However, there are many days when I exercise strenuously, and – on those days – I am often tempted to supplement my diet with gluten-free protein snacks. Often, these snacks have erythritol or stevia as an ingredient.

I’m just like everyone else. When I get busy, I can drift away from my ideal diet without realizing it. What starts as an exception increasingly becomes a new daily habit.

More research needs to be done, but it may be that these sweeteners can sometimes inhibit clear communication between beneficial bacteria in the gut – communication that is necessary for good microbial regulation.

Studies have shown that non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) like saccharin and sucralose have been linked to negative effects on gut health.

Research has indicated that these sweeteners can alter the gut microbiota composition, potentially impacting glucose tolerance, activation of sweet taste receptors, and overall gut health.

Specifically, saccharin and sucralose have been highlighted as sweeteners that can shift the populations of gut microbiota, raising concerns about their impact on health outcomes.

These findings suggest that the consumption of certain artificial sweeteners may have adverse effects on the gut microbiome, emphasizing the need for further investigation into their potential implications for human health.

So, I’ll report back to you and let you know how my experiment goes. I took a nutrient blood test before I made these changes, and I’ll take another one in a couple of months to see if having less of these sweeteners improved my nutrient absorption.

Meanwhile, I interviewed Dr. Myles Spar at my home. He’s an expert on the science of age reversal. He talked about the emerging field of epigenetics and how your lifestyle habits can turn your good genes ON and your bad genes OFF, helping you achieve robust health and a more youthful appearance. It’s a short video, but it packs a punch:

Benefits & Drawbacks to Food Sweeteners: Complete Health Guide

Here’s a list of food sweeteners divided into natural and man-made, along with their pros and cons:

Natural Food Sweeteners

These food sweeteners are provided by Mother Nature:

Monk Fruit:

Monk fruit sweetener is a natural sweetener extracted from the monk fruit, a small green melon native to parts of Southeast Asia.

The sweet flavor comes from antioxidants called mogrosides that are found in the flesh of the fruit.

Unlike many artificial sweeteners, monk fruit sweeteners are low in calories and carbs while providing a sweet taste. Research has shown some potential health benefits as well:

  • Since monk fruit contains no calories or carbohydrates, monk fruit sweetener reduces calorie intake compared to sugar. This may help with weight management.
  • Studies indicate monk fruit sweetener does not spike blood sugar levels like regular sugar. This makes it potentially useful for people with diabetes or pre-diabetes looking for a sweetener that won’t affect blood glucose. Keep in mind that many doctors, when they want a quick snapshot of your overall health, will look at your blood lab results to see your fasting-glucose number. Glucose that is too high is often interpreted as a sign that someone is aging too quickly on the inside.
  • The mogrosides show antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in lab studies. Theoretically, this could help combat oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. It will likely be studied further to determine if this is indeed true.
  • More studies are also needed to determine its impact on gut health specifically, but for now, it’s an intriguing sweetener option for the health-conscious or those managing diabetes or obesity.

Honey:

  • Benefits – Honey contains antioxidants and antimicrobial properties. It is also a natural cough suppressant and has wound-healing properties. Some people swear that low dosages of locally harvested honey help lessen the symptoms of environmental allergies, such as pollen.
  • Disadvantages – Honey is high in calories and can increase blood sugar levels. It’s extremely sweet. Almost too sweet.

Maple Syrup:

  • Benefits – Maple syrup contains minerals such as calcium and potassium (especially the Grade-B variation) and antioxidants. The taste is phenomenal!
  • Disadvantages – Maple syrup is high in calories and can increase blood sugar levels.

Stevia:

  • Benefits – Stevia is derived from a plant leaf. It’s a calorie-free sweetener and does not raise blood sugar levels.
  • Disadvantages – Stevia has a peculiar flavor if the dosage is too high and may not be suitable for baking. There has been some suggestion that it interferes with good gut health. More research is needed.

Agave Nectar:

  • Benefits – Agave nectar (which comes from the agave plant – a succulent from the dry regions of Mexico) is low glycemic and has a low impact on blood sugar levels.
  • Disadvantages – Agave nectar is high in fructose and may contribute to weight gain and metabolic issues.

Sucrose (Table Sugar):

  • Benefits – It’s cheap. It tastes fantastic. Few things taste better.
  • Disadvantages – Terrible nutrient profile. It’s basically high-calorie simple carbs with no nutrition. Increases obesity risk and related health issues. Causes dental problems and disturbs proper balance of gut bacteria. Also, it’s extremely addictive.

Man-Made Food Sweeteners

Some food sweeteners are brought to you by laboratory research, often funded by corporations:

Aspartame:

  • Benefits – Aspartame is low calorie and does not raise blood sugar levels.
  • Disadvantages – Has there ever been a more hotly contested sweetener? Definitely the most controversial. Diet soda enthusiasts swear by it, but aspartame has been linked to headaches and may not suit those with phenylketonuria (PKU). You decide.

Sucralose:

  • Benefits – Sucralose is low calorie and does not raise blood sugar levels. Good flavor.
  • Disadvantages – Sucralose may contribute to digestive issues and has been linked to negative effects on gut bacteria. More recently, it has been indicated in the possible damage of human DNA.

Saccharin:

  • Benefits – Saccharin is low calorie and does not raise blood sugar levels.
  • Disadvantages – Saccharin has been linked to bladder cancer in rats, not humans. This food sweetener used to be very popular, but over the years, it has fallen out of favor. Maybe because of the unfortunate aftertaste.

Acesulfame-K:

  • Benefits – Acesulfame-K is low calorie and does not raise blood sugar levels.
  • Disadvantages – Acesulfame-K has been linked to negative effects on the thyroid gland in rats, but not in humans.

Maltitol:

  • Benefits – Similar sweetness profile to sugar, without the same caloric content. It has about half the calories of sugar. Doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as dramatically as sugar, making it a possible option for people with diabetes. Also, it’s less likely to cause tooth decay than sugar because oral bacteria do not ferment it.
  • Disadvantages – Gas! Some people have a harder time digesting Maltitol; it can cause bloating and diarrhea for some, especially when consumed in larger amounts. Can be more expensive than other alternatives.

Erythritol:

Erythritol is a natural sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in some fruits and fermented foods. However, commercially available erythritol is typically produced through fermentation using corn or wheat starch, so it can be considered a man-made sweetener.

  • Benefits – Erythritol is calorie-free and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, making it a good option for people with diabetes or those trying to reduce calorie intake. Doesn’t contribute to tooth decay, as oral bacteria don’t ferment it. Similar sweetness profile to sugar and can be used in various foods and beverages.
  • Disadvantages – Erythritol may cause digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea in some people, especially when consumed in larger amounts. Has a slightly cooling sensation in the mouth, which may impact the taste. Doesn’t caramelize or brown like sugar does, which can affect texture and appearance. Recently associated with an increase in stroke risk in humans; more research is needed.

The Dieting Illusion: Your Body VS Your Culture

Will I have a difficult time reducing my intake of food sweeteners?

Almost certainly.

I’ve somehow become in the habit of consuming the foods that contain these sweeteners (start reading ingredient labels carefully, and you, too, might be surprised to discover the number of sweeteners you’ve been consuming).

Reducing my intake might prove challenging because I’ve become somewhat attached to these habits. I look forward to these comfort foods.

Fortunately, I’ve been experimenting with my nutrition for so many decades that I can at least intellectually understand that my attachment is a dieting illusion.

The dieting illusion is when you start trying to amend your daily eating habits but then stall because there is a particular food or beverage you can’t imagine your life without.

That’s the illusion part.

You are not your habits. Your life is bigger than just your habits. Habits are simply that: habits. They can be changed.

Perhaps challenging at first, but it does usually get easier with time.

In this video, I discuss with Ryan Mason the dieting illusion, your hierarchy of actual needs, and why that afternoon energy crash might not be as inevitable as you think.

What I’m touching on here is how sometimes what’s best for your body is different than the current cultural norms:

Conclusion on Food Sweeteners and This Health Guide to Sugar Alternatives

It’s important to note that, at best, all sweeteners should be consumed in moderation.

Individual reactions and preferences vary. For example, a particular food that’s inflammatory for me, may not be inflammatory for you.

Conversely, you might have a food sensitivity or allergy that I don’t share.

Consult your medical doctor about which foods are uniquely best for you.

Natural sweeteners have delicious flavor, but, generally, they spike blood sugar, and that’s a problem.

Elevated blood sugar levels can be potentially unhealthy because they can lead to several adverse health outcomes. When blood sugar levels are consistently high, it can damage blood vessels and nerves throughout the body, leading to a variety of complications:

  1. Cardiovascular disease: High blood sugar levels can damage the lining of blood vessels, leading to a buildup of plaque and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
  2. Kidney damage: The kidneys filter waste products from the blood. High blood sugar levels can damage the small blood vessels in the kidneys.
  3. Eye damage: High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels in the eyes, which can potentially cause vision loss.
  4. Nerve damage: High blood sugar levels can damage the nerves throughout the body, leading to neuropathy. This can cause numbness, tingling, pain in the hands and feet, digestive problems, and sexual dysfunction.
  5. Increased risk of infections: High blood sugar levels can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infections.

Speaking personally about the natural sweeteners, I find that agave nectar seems to fit my body chemistry best. Small amounts of it don’t seem to leave me feeling weird, and it has less impact on blood sugar than other natural sweeteners.

Speaking personally about man-made sweeteners, I’d love to recommend sucralose because I like the flavor very much. Unfortunately, after I consume it, I feel weird. Maybe you’ll have a different experience.

Perhaps the best solution when it comes to food sweeteners is to gradually accustom your palate to appreciate food without so much sweetness. That way, you avoid chemicals and blood-sugar spikes.

For dessert each night, I have a small serving of fresh fruit – usually blueberries, but also sometimes apple, banana, or frozen cherries.

I find this delicious and satisfying, and I’ve also noticed that having those carbs at night helps me sleep better.

And, for me, the advantage of eating authentic, whole foods (such as a small serving of daily fruit) is that I get naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and cofactors.

Nutritional cofactors are those enzymes and other compounds that whole foods contain that enhance health.

Nutritional cofactors are essential for many physiological processes in a thriving human body, including metabolism, DNA synthesis, and immune function. Some cofactors are organic molecules that bind to enzymes and help them catalyze chemical reactions. Some enzymes are involved in electron transport and fatty acid synthesis.

Food sweeteners are a common ingredient in many products and may impact your gut health and nutrient absorption. While natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and stevia have potential benefits, they still have disadvantages.

The emerging field of epigenetics suggests that lifestyle habits play a significant role in gene expression and overall health. If you’re looking to reduce your intake of food sweeteners, it may prove challenging, but with time, it can be done.

Understanding the dieting illusion and changing your diet can ultimately lead to better overall health. The general rule is that, yes, you can have sweeteners in your diet, but sparingly is best.

Additional Resources:

About Stevia – https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/is-the-sugar-substitute-stevia-bad-for-our-health

About Erythritrol – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythritol

About Maltitol – https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/nutrition/4-common-maltitol-side-effects-more-reasons-to-limit-your-artificial-sweetener-intake/

About Insulin Resistance and Blood-Sugar Spikes – https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes/prediabetes-insulin-resistance

Learning to Like Unsweetened Food – https://www.phoenixhelix.com/where-do-natural-sugars-fit-on-a-healing-diet/

Sucralose linked to Leaky Gut and DNA Damage – https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/news/20230601/sucralose-genotoxic-linked-leaky-gut-study