Sugar Substitutes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Sugar substitutes are growing in popularity every day. But with our families and athletes consuming it on a daily basis, how good for you can this be? Sugar substitutes are chemical or plant-based substitutes that sweeten the flavor of foods and drinks, replacing sugar. Many people call them “artificial sweeteners” and “non-caloric sweeteners.” They are found in many food and beverage items that we consume. 

These sugar substitutes are actually sweeter than regular sugar. It also takes a lot smaller amounts of these sugar substitutes to provide the same taste level of sweetness (they are almost 400 times sweeter than regular graduated sugar). The substitutes are regulated as food additives by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA reviews scientific evidence to make sure the sugar substitutes are safe before consumer consumption. 

Which Sugar Substitutes Do We Use Daily? 

Whether you have been adding it to your morning coffee or in your protein shake, it’s important to know what you are putting into your body. 

  • Acesulfame K (brand names: Sunett and Sweet One)
  • Advantame
  • Aspartame (two brand names: Equal and Nutrasweet)
  • Neotame (brand name: Newtame)
  • Saccharin (two brand names: Sweet ‘N Low and Sweet Twin)
  • Sucralose (brand name: Splenda)

In addition to one listed above, sugar alcohols are in a whole different category but still used as sugar substitutes. These can include but are not limited to mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. FDA says that the alcohols are safe to include in foods and beverages. 

There are some sugar substitutes that don’t require FDA approval, they are “generally recognized as safe”. The FDA does not need to review because scientific evidence suggests the products used (like monk fruit extracts) are already safe for consumption. 

The “Good” 

Although there is much controversy surrounding these sugar additives, there are a few hidden benefits. Sugar substitutes can provide added sweetness to the flavor of food and beverages without adding lots of calories like sugar does--and they might not contribute to tooth decay. Most of the well-known sweeteners do not raise blood sugar and can help those with diabetes, obviously monitoring how much is appropriately consumed. 

These sugar substitutes are additionally used for weight loss. They can be used to control how many calories you want to consume. For example, a “reduced calorie” drink would contain the substitute. Although this seems like a great option, it’s important to focus more on natural food choices like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and more. 

The “Bad”

Some sugar substitutes may be better than others. Aspartame and Sucralose are linked to harmful effects such as tumors in animal research. On the other hand, Acesulfame potassium, Neotame, and Advantame are proved to be generally safe in moderation from the FDA. 

Moreover, this additive may harm your gut health. The friendly bacteria in your gut are extremely important for your overall health. They may improve digestion, benefit immune function and reduce your risk of many diseases. In one animal study, it was found that Saccharin may have negative effects on these bacteria. After 12 weeks, the rats that consumed the Saccharin sweetener had 47–80 percent fewer bacteria that don't require oxygen in their guts. The beneficial bacteria were significantly reduced, while more harmful bacteria seemed to be less affected. Which led to the gut bacteria having still not returned to normal levels after the experiment was completed. Meaning- daily consumption of sugar substitutes could harm your gut microbiome! 

Artificial sweeteners have continuously been questioned whether the artificial additives are better than regular sugar. The real matter is that the sugar substitutes could cause real potential harm to your health. This is shown through extensive research dating back to 1970 where it linked the artificial sweetener saccharin to bladder cancer in laboratory rats. Because of those studies, saccharin once carried a label warning that it may be hazardous to your health. This still didn’t stop many people from buying it.

Do you Need Sugar?  

We are programmed to seek out sugar, it is the most surefire source of calories for humans for centuries. Although tempting- we should not get our essential sugar intake from processed sources. We have to eat sugar to have energy. But, the sugars we need should be found in the natural food choices you consume. As a crystalline carbohydrate, sugar is converted by our body into glucose, which we use as fuel. It is this fuel that provides our brain and muscles with the stamina they need to persevere through workouts. 

But on average, we consume more sugar than our body needs. To regulate the type of sugar you consume, opt for natural food and ingredient sources. Unlike sources of added sugars, natural options are often accompanied by fiber and other nutrients, vitamins and minerals that provide nutritional benefits in addition to energy. Try the ATAQ Fuel raw energy bars, made with natural ingredients and an excellent source of natural sugar for a pre-workout snack.

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More about Natural Sugar 

Natural and added sugars are metabolized the same way in our bodies. But for most people, consuming natural sugars in foods such as fruit is not linked to negative health effects, since the amount of sugar tends to be modest and is “packaged” with fiber and other healthful nutrients. On the other hand, our bodies do not need, or benefit from, eating added sugar. Natural sugar is the best way to regulate your sugar intake. Here are some whole food options that will help your body turn sugar into energy. For more information on the role of sugar in sports nutrition, check out our guide

  • Grapefruit: lowers cholesterol and insulin levels; can improve weight loss
  • Avocado: low carbs and high in healthy fats
  • Blueberries: very high in antioxidants; benefits immune system 
  • Apples: improves digestion; very rich in fiber, vitamin C and potassium
  • Bananas: high in potassium and fiber
  • Carrots: great source of beta carotene, fiber and antioxidants
  • Beets: high in fiber, potassium and manganese; may help blood pressure and inflammation
  • Sweet Potatoes: very high in vitamin A; can lower bad cholesterol and help heart health
  • Pumpkin: high in potassium and vitamin C; may help regulate blood pressure and lower chances of diabetes
  • Butternut Squash: high in vitamin A and antioxidants; high water content helps hydration

ATAQ Fuel 

Even though some sugar substitutes are safe to consume, they simply don't compare to natural ingredients. Unless you have an underlying medical condition you should always try to use natural sugar! At ATAQ, our advice is to make healthy levels of sugar consumption a constant goal, just like any other aspect of your workout routine. It’s important to be informed about sugar substitutes and mindful of what you are consuming for energy. With this, you’ll now be able to spot the difference and opt for natural ingredients that give you energy.  

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Sources:

Family Doctor- Sugar Substitutes 

Mayo Clinic- Healthy Lifestyle 

Healthline- Nutrition Sucralose 

Health Harvard.edu- blog 

Cancer.gov- About Cancer 

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