We all know that too much sugar is detrimental to our health but are you consuming ‘sugar free’ or ‘zero calorie’ foods containing hidden nasties, that are negatively impacting your health without you even knowing?
If you are eating or drinking something sweet yet it is labelled ‘sugar free’, it is more than likely to contain artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame , Sucralose  or Saccharin .
Below are just a few ways these ‘sugar free’ artificial sweeteners could be affecting your health….
Artificial sweeteners are frequently added to diet drinks and foods and often marketed towards those trying to lose weight. However, it has been shown that artificial sweeteners can actually have the opposite effect, by interfering with the appetite-regulating hormone leptin. Studies have shown these sweeteners to increase appetite, sugar/carb cravings and decrease insulin sensitivity (insulin sensitivity means our body is able to lower our blood sugar levels) to promote fat storage and weight gain.
Imbalance Gut Microflora
These sweeteners cause significant changes in gut microflora, reducing the numbers of beneficial bacteria (bifidobacteria and lactobacilli) and increasing intestinal pH. By decreasing the acidity (alkalising) of our intestinal tract in this way, we become less able to fend off pathogenic micro-organisms. This imbalance to our good and bad bacteria lowers our immunity and therefore jeopardises our overall health and wellbeing.
Artificial sweeteners are excito-neuro toxins, this means they stimulate our brain cells to death. Signals are sent to our brain that are 200-300 times stronger than normal sugar and long term this has the potential to change our brain chemistry and therefore its ability to function normally. Side effects such as headaches, migraines, seizures and altered nerve function are common and studies have even linked them to the development of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Aspartame contains a concentrated amount of Phenylalanine, an amino acid which in moderate amounts (through a whole food diet) is beneficial to our health but in the concentrated form provided by aspartame it can deplete our serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood) and studies have shown links with depression.
When the methanol (alcohol component) of the artificial sweetener aspartame is broken down it has no natural binder (like it would in the form of pectin in fruit) and so it turns into formaldehyde in your body. Formaldehyde is a poisonous substance used in (among other things) paint remover.
Other negative health effects
Studies have linked artificial sweeteners to a wide range of health conditions, including asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and even tumour formation.
Genetically Modified (GM) Ingredients
Artificial sweeteners may contain genetically modified ingredients, negatively impacting the nutritional value such foods offer. When rats are fed GM foods they are shown to develop liver and kidney toxicity, as well as having adverse immune responses. Unfortunately, in Australia, companies do not have to label when they have used genetically modified ingredients in processed products, therefore you may be consuming unknown amounts of genetically modified foods without even knowing.
So how do we enjoy a sweet treat but not to the detriment of our health?
There are plenty of healthful refined sugar free sweeteners available to us, such as rice malt syrup, coconut sugar and stevia. These have a low glycaemic load (GL) to provide a more sustained energy release. This means they do not cause the blood sugar spikes afforded by the higher GL sweeteners (which cause energy slumps and sugar cravings) and they also avoid the GM concerns that are faced when consuming artificial sweeteners. However, these are still sugar so use in moderation for good health.
Coconut Sugar: Made by boiling down the sap from the coconut flower, this sweetener does contain fructose but it is far more nutritious, containing many minerals important for good health. In addition, coconut sugar is far more sustainable.
Rice Malt Syrup: A natural sweetener made from fermented cooked rice, this blend of glucose and maltose is 100% fructose free so it has a slow releasing effect and does not put unnecessary pressure on the liver like fructose does (fructose first has to be converted to glucose by the liver before it can be utilized by the body).
Stevia: Derived from the leaf of a plant this sweetener contains no sugar and therefore no fructose so is considered very safe to use. (However, it does taste a lot sweeter than sugar so far less is required.)
Artificial sweeteners are just that, artificial. They are not recognised by our body and can cause long term damage to our health. By eating a whole food diet and consuming products by brands that we know are free of artificial sweeteners, we can be confident that what we eat not only tastes good but is looking after our health and wellbeing.