Artificial sweeteners are some of the most controversial ingredients in our food supply. Part of the controversy stems from conflicting research, but mostly, it’s because we so badly want them to be good for us! Just think, all the sugar you like with none of the calories! What an awesome concept! Unfortunately for those of us with a sweet tooth, research indicates artificial sweeteners may not be the “health food” they’re often marketed as.
I’ll admit, many of the claims of health problems caused by artificial sweeteners are greatly exaggerated above what science tells us. Although it’s within the realm of possibility, there’s not much research indicating sweeteners cause cancer, depression, multiple sclerosis or many of the other diseases they’re often linked to. But the real question isn’t if they are safe, it’s whether they work for their intended use – weight loss and blood sugar control.
To that question, science paints a clearer picture. Several large correlational studies indicate people who drink artificially sweetened drinks have higher BMIs and a higher risk for diabetes, even when compared to regular soda drinkers. Many interventional studies conducted on both humans and rats indicate artificial sweeteners do not promote weight loss when replacing a sugar sweetened food, except for in those who are severely obese.
Kinda strange for something that is calorie free, don’t ‘cha think? There are many theories to why this occurs, so let’s look at the most popular ones.
Artificial sweeteners increase hunger.
Artificial sweeteners may lead to weight gain because they increase our perceived hunger level. Multiple studies indicate people rank their hunger levels as higher after consuming an artificially sweetened drink versus one sweetened with a caloric sweetener, like sugar. This seems to be especially true for aspartame. Artificial sweeteners may lead to an increase in calorie intake a full day after consuming them. It is likely that caloric sweeteners signal our body to cut back on calories to keep our intake consistent, but artificial sweeteners do not trigger the same response.
Artificial sweeteners increase insulin response.
They may be calorie free, but your body doesn’t know it. When you eat sugar (or any carbohydrate containing food), your body releases insulin, a hormone that moves sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells. Once sugar enters a cell, it can be used as energy or stored as fat. Because artificial sweeteners taste sweet, your body releases insulin, thinking you just ate sugar. So, how does that extra insulin lead to weight gain? Well, besides controlling blood sugar, insulin is also a growth hormone.
Because of this insulin response, many researchers question the use of artificial sweeteners for people with diabetes. They hypothesize that this constant release of insulin may wear out our pancreas, the organ that releases insulin, or make our cells more resistant to insulin. I certainly think there’s enough concern to be cautious using sweeteners in diabetics.
Artificial sweeteners train your taste buds.
Artificial sweeteners are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than table sugar. When you open a packet, very little of what you see is the sweetener itself. Most is filler. Coating your taste buds in the extremely sweet flavor trains you to prefer sweeter foods. From personal experience, I found when I decreased my diet coke intake from 3 a day (!!!!) to once or twice a month, I noticed a huge difference in my sweet cravings. I used to crave sweets every day and often found myself indulging in sweets that I didn’t even like, just to calm my sweet tooth. Even though I still enjoy sweets, I rarely experience cravings like I used to and I can easily turn down everything but the most tempting treats.
You justify eating more.
Some researchers think the weight gain associated with artificial sweeteners is just the result of people using sweeteners to justify other unhealthy choices. Everyone’s done it. You feel good about ordering a diet soda, so you give yourself the okay to get fries instead of a salad. Or you buy sugar free cookies instead of the regular ones, because that totally means you can eat the whole box, right?
Now, this doesn’t mean sugar is good for you. The health risks associated with excessive sugar consumption are well established. But I think I’ll stick with the devil I know. The American Heart Association recommends women to limit added sugars to 6 teaspoons daily and men to 9 teaspoons daily. To put it in caloric perspective, one teaspoon of added sugars is about 15-20 calories. It might not sound like a lot, especially for someone who struggles with a sweet tooth, but if well planned, it can be surprisingly generous. You could add 1 teaspoon of sugar to your morning coffee then drizzle a teaspoon of honey on your yogurt. And you would still have room for a couple small chocolate chip cookies and an ounce of dark chocolate.
Personally, I use less processed sugars, like pure maple syrup, honey and raw sugar. Since they are more flavorful, I find you can get away with using less. Plus, they have less of a glycemic effect. When I use sugar, it’s usually to sweeten something that is otherwise healthy, like popsicles made with fresh fruit or these multigrain pancake muffins, which contain about a teaspoon of sugar in each.
And sometimes, you just need a big hunk of chocolate cake.
- 1½ cups whole wheat pastry flour or whole wheat flour
- 1½ cups buckwheat flour (or more whole wheat flour) 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ¼ cup pure maple syrup
- 2 large eggs
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 3 cups low fat buttermilk
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Mix the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a second bowl, whisk together the syrup, eggs, canola oil and buttermilk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk until combined.
- Divide batter into muffin tins sprayed with oil. Fill each tin ¾ths of the way full. Bake for 20-25 min until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.