Humans have evolved to love sugar and sweet tasting foods. When we eat sugar we get a surge of feel good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, and repeatedly eating sugary foods leads to more food cravings. Sugars and refined carbohydrates tend to spike our blood sugar levels immediately, which leads to poor metabolic health, and in the long term increases the risk of developing many chronic diseases.
Carbohydrates, along with protein and fats, are one of three main nutrients found in food and drink. There are three main types of carbohydrates - sugars (or simple carbohydrates), starches (or complex carbohydrates) and fibre. All carbohydrates are eventually broken down into glucose which is our body’s main source of energy - it may be used immediately or stored in muscles and liver.
Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that taste like sugar therefore satisfying food cravings but have no or minimal calories. But are they really a healthier option?
There are many artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, sorbitol as well as natural sweeteners like stevia and allulose. Whilst sweeteners have almost no impact on calories consumed they still trick your brain into thinking sugar has been consumed and produce the same cravings for more. There is some evidence that substituting calorie laden sugar items with sugar substitutes may help reduce body weight. This is however complicated by the fact that our brain can sense when it is not actually sugar and may therefore not be ‘satisfied’. The practical result being that people who feel unsatisfied may consume excess calories from other sources anyway.
Sugar substitutes are also controversial for other reasons; most recently aspartame was declared a possible cancer risk by the WHO (this was actually based on rodent studies in which levels of sweetener where extremely high, at levels which are unlikely to be consumed by a human. Rats metabolise aspartame differently to humans).
Also, although sugar substitutes may not cause the blood sugar level spikes seen with sugar, they affect our gut microbiome, which in turn has a complex series of downstream effects on our metabolism.
What about the use of sugar ‘alternatives’ such as honey, molasses, maple syrup, agave nectar and dates. Some of these are less processed than table sugar and may have some trace minerals and antioxidants, however, just like sugar, our bodies still break them down into glucose. Therefore they have very similar effects on our blood sugar levels as sugar.
We are wired to crave sugar and large amounts of refined sugar are associated with sugar spikes and increase the risk of chronic diseases. However smaller amounts of sugar in naturally occurring forms such as fruit is healthy. Whilst artificial sweeteners may be helpful in reducing calorie intake, and reduce tooth decay, they also have some undesirable health effects such as food cravings, and bad effects on gut microbiome. The bottom line is to enjoy small amounts of sugar in their natural structure - food matrix - such as a wide variety of fruit and limit consumption of artificial sweeteners.