Sweeteners: yes or no?

Replacing sugar isn’t always beneficial. Whether you do it with sweeteners of natural or synthetic origin.

We live in an increasingly “light” society. Drinks, chewing gum, yogurt and other low-calorie foods proliferate on supermarket counters and often also in the pantries of those who want to lose a few pounds.

In most of these products, sugar is replaced with low-calorie sweeteners (sweeteners) about which there is often a lot of confusion. Especially regarding the pros and cons.

First of all, a distinction must be made since there are basically two types of sweeteners: those of natural origin and those artificial or synthetic.

Natural sweeteners Sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, fructose
Artificial sweeteners Aspartame, acesulfame, saccharin, cyclamates

The identikit of naturals

The so-called polyalcohols, such as sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol (present in fruit or other parts of plants) are less caloric than normal kitchen sugar (sucrose), providing 2.4 calories per gram against 4 of sucrose and have a sweetening power similar. This is why they are used in an increasing number of low-calorie foods.

They also do not favor the development of tooth decay. In particular xylitol, which for this very reason we often find in products for dental health and chewing gum.

A separate discussion should be made for fructose. In fact it has a higher sweetening power than sucrose, but it supplies exactly the same calories, therefore it does not allow for large energy savings. And it has cariogenic power.

There are some downsides

Although sugar alcohols are of natural origin and save calories, their excessive use has laxative effects . It is therefore advisable to use them in moderation and to carefully read the indications given on the label of the foods that contain them.

Synthetic sweeteners under the lens

Originally created for diabetic patients, their use has extended to the preparation of “light” drinks and foods, even if they have always animated heated discussions about their potential negative effects.

Absolutely acariogenic and endowed with a strong sweetening power (from 30 to 500 times that of sucrose) today they are widespread in the “diet” industry because at the doses used they are practically calorie-free.

Aspartame, acesulfame, saccharin, cyclamates: just read any light product label to realize how often these substances appear.

Looking for security

In recent years, studies on the possible toxicity of these substances have multiplied. In particular, aspartame has recently been the subject of controversy, which has a sweetening power 200 times higher than that of sugar and is therefore widely used in dietary products.

In Italy it has been at the center of two recent researches by the Ramazzini Institute of Bologna which, with their results obtained on laboratory animals, have rekindled the controversy. In fact, possible links have been highlighted with an increased risk of cancer and damage to health, especially in children.

But EFSA, the European Food Safety Agency, has nonetheless reiterated that if the consumer respects the acceptable daily doses (ADI), i.e. a maximum of 40 mg/kg of body weight, there are no significant health risks.

Mixed results

The same goes for other artificial sweeteners that have been much studied and discussed in the past and then exonerated. Always provided that the acceptable daily doses indicated by the competent authorities are respected.

This is the case for example of saccharin (ADI 2.5 mg/kg body weight/day) and sodium cyclamate (ADI 11 mg/kg body weight/day). Even if the continuing uncertainties about the safety of the latter have led to its use being banned in some countries, such as the United States.

Doubts and certainties

Beyond the possible doubts, there are however some certainties: these sweeteners should not be administered to children under three years of age and should not be used during pregnancy.

Furthermore, aspartame, being a source of phenylalanine, is contraindicated in people suffering from phenylketonuria, a congenital disease due to the deficiency of an enzyme responsible for metabolizing phenylalanine.

Qualified advice

Experts recommend the use of artificial sweeteners only for people with obesity or diabetes . Anyone who is slightly overweight should use it only occasionally and for a limited time.

Also taking into account the suggestions of INRAN (National Research Institute for Food and Nutrition) contained in the Guidelines for healthy eating:

“The consumption of sugar substitutes, even if it has now entered into current use, is by no means essential, not even in cases in which low-calorie diets are followed for weight reduction. In fact, the use of these sweeteners alone does not allow to reduce body weight if the total amount of calories introduced with the diet is not decreased and physical activity is not increased.”

Joycelyn Elders is the author and creator of EmpowerEssence, a health and wellness blog. Elders is a respected public health advocate and pediatrician dedicated to promoting general health and well-being.

The blog covers a wide range of topics related to health and wellness, with articles organized into several categories.

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