Trying to lose weight? No doubt you’ve been advised to stop eating French fries, soda, and carbs of any kind. And atop the list of no-no’s is the arch nemesis of weight loss: sugar.
Sugar is hard to let go of. It’s the main ingredient of so many foods it’ll make your head spin. It’s comforting, delicious, and damn hard to avoid. It’s also addicting and full of those carbohydrates that stick around the hips when the day is done.
Enter artificial sweeteners: those brightly colored packages perched on restaurant tables and in coffee shops. Artificial sweeteners claim to bring the oh-so-sweet qualities of sugar to the table, without the extra calories: a guilt-free indulgence.
Artificial sweeteners are available pretty much anywhere sugar is found. There are varieties you can bake with, dump in your coffee, and bulk sizes to take home. But many nutritionists and doctors warn that the ingredients used to replace sugar (especially aspartame) could cause just as many health problems as sugar itself.
Sandra Murphy is a Naturopathic Doctor and professor at The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in Halifax. Dr. Murphy says that the chemical properties in aspartame are what make it so controversial.
“Aspartame is made up of two amino acids fused by methanol. At body temperature that methanol will break down into the body, releasing toxins,” she says. “Of course it releases very small amounts at a time, but that’s where the controversy lies.”
Aspartame is commonly found in sweeteners such as Equal and Nutrasweet. Other sweeteners such as Sweet n’ Low and SugarTwin consist of different ingredients, but they all have one thing in common: they are non-nutritive, and are therefore calorie and carbohydrate-free.
Aspartame has been permitted for use in Canada since 1981. “That’s not long enough to look at the long term benefits or risks,” explains Dr. Murphy.
But that’s not enough for her to see the short term benefits either. “I really can’t see the benefits at all,” she says. “It’s synthetic and the body is not used to seeing sugar in that form.”
Murphy explains that even though artificial sweeteners contribute less to obesity because of the lack of calories, studies show that people are more likely to consume more artificial sweetener throughout the day and, overall, end up eating much more.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
On their website, Health and Welfare Canada state that, “Before any food additive is permitted for use, manufacturers are required to file a food additive submission in accordance to regulations. A submission must contain detailed information, including the results of safety tests, as well as information respecting the utility and potential benefits to the consumer of the additive in question.”
All sweeteners in Canada are subject to rigorous testing before being available on the market. Many, such as saccharine, are available only as tabletop sweeteners and are sold in tablets or powder form in pharmacies. Others, such as Splenda, are available to everyone and can be found in everything from baking to canned vegetables.
Health and Welfare Canada also put in place a recommended daily intake (RDI) for most artificial sweeteners. These RDI’s are based on body weight, and studies have shown that “normal use” of artificial sweeteners has not presented any problems.
Murphy explains that even though Health Canada has set out guidelines, many manufacturers have been mixing sweeteners in order to get the perfect balance of sweet and calorie-free. “It’s hard to know what’s safe when ingredients are going to be combined,” says Murphy. “That makes the sweeteners harder to control.”
Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Loss
When it comes to artificial sweeteners and sugar in general, the cliché of “everything in moderation” rings true. Though sugar may contribute more calories, artificial sweetener should not be considered a miracle solution to weight loss.
“There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of sweetness,” says Murphy. “White sugar is bad for us, but there are plenty of natural sweeteners that taste just as good.” Natural sweeteners such as honey, brown rice sugar, and Stevia (an herb that is naturally very sweet), are all good natural options in the battle against calories.