The great artificial sweetener debate
We asked a naturopath and a dietitian if sugar substitutes, known as artificial or intense sweeteners, are safe – and what we should reach for when a sweet craving kicks in.
Interviews: Melanie Hearse
Naturopath Andrea Hepner, from Empowered Health, says…
I don’t advise anyone to use artificial sweeteners, simply because they are artificial and something our bodies were not designed to consume.
When we eat a lot of processed foods, we can become depleted of the minerals chromium and magnesium, which make us keep craving sweet foods. Rather than relying on high-sugar foods or artificial sweeteners, I advise people to focus on reducing their sugar cravings in the first place.
Start by implementing a low glycaemic index diet with lots of fresh vegetables to balance your blood sugar levels. When our blood sugar levels drop, we lose energy and we instinctively reach for quick energy boosts found in sugary foods. Some people try to get the sweet hit without weight gain by using artificial sweeteners, but doing that keeps your body used to having sweetness.
I often prescribe chromium or magnesium supplements in the short term to break the cycle. I also recommend people who have sweet cravings after lunch and dinner brush their teeth immediately afterwards to change the taste in their mouth and get rid of the craving.
If you do need to sweeten a food, there is a natural sweetener called stevia, which comes from a plant and is probably the best natural sweetener there is.
Maria Packard, Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says…
The official name for artificial sweeteners is ‘intense sweeteners’, because they are up to 300–1,000 times sweeter than sugar. They are a common substitute for sugar because they give food sweetness with far fewer – if any – calories.
They can be a good option for people who want to lose weight by cutting their calorie intake, provided they are used in a sensible way. There is no point in adding intense sweeteners to a cake you’re making with lots of butter. You need to look at the whole food and make sure it’s a healthy choice.
If you put a teaspoon of sugar in your tea or coffee or on your porridge, that’s not going to make you obese. But if you drink a lot of soft drink, then switching to a diet version will help you cut calories, which may assist with weight loss.
Some people raise concerns that intense sweeteners cause cancer or increase people’s appetite for sweetness; however, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), which analysed the most reputable evidence, have deemed them safe.
Consumers always have a choice: if you believe the verdict is still out, then the best way to incorporate sweetness into the diet is from fruit and a little bit of normal sugar.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the interviewees and their employers.
Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.