It’s no secret that most of us can cut back on our sugar intake. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, the average American adult eats 77 grams of sugar per day – which is more than three times the recommended daily amount for women (that’s about 25 grams of added sugar).
If you’re looking to cut your sugar count, artificial sweeteners may sound appealing. But it’s not that easy. Here’s what you need to know about your body’s reaction to natural and artificial sugars.
In general, there are two main types of sugar: naturally occurring and added.
Naturally occurring sugars can be found in foods like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Unlike table sugars that you stir into your coffee, these sugars occur naturally in your food and don’t need to be added to it.
Also, added sugars include any natural sugars (white sugar, brown sugar, honey) or processed sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup) that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation.
Whether natural or processed, sugar contributes extra calories and zero nutrients to your diet. If you overdo it, all those extra calories can lead to weight gain and inflammation, putting you at risk for chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, according to Brittany Poulson, RDN, a Utah-based certified diabetes educator.
Unfortunately, many of our favorite foods and beverages are loaded with added sugars. You’ll find them in items like soft drinks, baked goods, and flavored yogurt, but be careful. They also hide in surprising places like soups, ketchup and breads.
Artificial sweeteners are an alternative to synthetic sugars. They were originally created for people with diabetes and/or those concerned about their blood sugar levels for other medical reasons, says Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, a certified diabetes educator in New York City.
Compared to naturally occurring and added sugars, artificial sweeteners – also known as sugar substitutes and non-nutritive sweeteners – are low or no calories. Common artificial sweeteners include aspartame (brand names NutraSweet and Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), and stevia (Truvia and PureVia).
Replacing sugary foods and beverages with artificially sweetened options may help reduce calories and lower your risk of chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes.” Artificial sugars are a great option for people with diabetes to help lower their carbohydrate intake while still allowing them to enjoy sweets and beverages,” notes Poulson.
However, defining sugar as “natural” versus “artificial” can be tricky because, according to Poulson, the term “natural” is not regulated by the FDA. Some artificial sweeteners are created from naturally occurring substances. For example, stevia is touted as an all-natural herbal sweetener, while sucralose actually comes from sugar.
Even if your taste buds can’t tell the difference between natural and artificial sweeteners, your body certainly can.
For example, studies have shown that your brain is not fooled by artificial sweeteners.” Your brain doesn’t react to artificial sugar the same way it would if you ate a chocolate chip cookie or cake,” says Kaufman.
According to Kaufman, consuming sugar activates the reward pathways in your brain, leading to the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine. Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, only partially activate the reward pathway. The reason? They provide the sweetness our bodies crave, but not the calories we need to survive (read: energy).
That means you may not feel satisfied after eating artificially sweetened cookies, which could make you binge on real sugar later, Kaufman says. The result. An increased risk of health problems.” There have been some observational studies linking low-calorie sweeteners to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and risk of other cardiometabolic diseases,” Poulson says. However, studies cannot prove that low-calorie sweeteners are directly responsible, and more research is needed.
Your body also digests natural and artificial sugars differently.
Natural sugars go through the normal process of digestion. Before being released into the bloodstream, it is broken down and absorbed by the stomach and small intestine. From there, the sugar (in the form of glucose and/or fructose) is sent to the cells for energy.” Once our cells have all the immediate energy they need, the remaining [sugar] is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle cells,” says Poulson. When there’s no instant fuel available, your body can draw from those fuel stores.
“In addition, the liver uses fructose to create and store fat,” says Poulson.” When the liver has no more room to store these sugar units as fat, a buildup of fat globules can occur, leading to ‘fatty liver’, or non-alcoholic liver disease.”
Also, according to Poulson, some artificial sugars travel undigested in our digestive system. In particular, artificial sweeteners made with sugar alcohols (you’ll find these in foods labeled ‘sugar-free’) are difficult to digest and can cause bloating, intestinal gas, and diarrhea.
Whether you choose natural or artificial sweeteners (or both), your best bet is to use them sparingly. In particular, limit added sugars to no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) per day for women and 150 calories (9 teaspoons) per day for men.
When you’re craving something sweet, reach for naturally sweet foods, such as fruit, because it provides beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber, Kaufman says. Naturally sweet foods are also less likely to cause a sugar crash, she adds.
Instead of replacing your favorite sugary soda with a “diet” version, try sparkling water; if you want some flavor, add a splash of 100-percent juice.” That way, you’ll still get the hiss without added or artificial sugar,” says Poulson.