On the Question of Sweeteners

An inevitable question surfaced this past week regarding the use of artificial sweeteners. When you adopt a low carb, no or next-to-no sugar diet, it’s almost assured that you’ll come up against the question at some point. There are as many perspectives on this issue as there are foods containing these products. And, these days, we even have several choices if we choose to go the alternative sweetener route.

It’s a question, we think, each person has to answer for him/herself. It’s admittedly tough to wade through the hearsay, personal accounts, discredited studies, conflicts of interest, and industry talk. One less complicated criterion we suggest applying to the issue is this: as you look at an artificially sweetened food/drink, does the item offer any real benefit (physical or otherwise) that you couldn’t get from an unsweetened source? Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. For example, an artificially sweetened soda might seem a better choice than a regular soda. But the best choice, of course, is to nix the soda order completely. If a recipe calls for sugar, you could substitute, say, Splenda, but you might also consider leaving out the sugar/sweetener ingredient entirely, substituting with fruit puree (still fructose but with nutrients) or finding a different recipe. (Quick aside: you can find some interesting substitutes and familiar but low carb adjusted recipes on paleo diet sites.)

Let’s face it. We live in a world that expects birthday cakes, holiday treats, and traditional foods with deep emotional and cultural associations. Some of us are more successful than others at wholly realigning our lifestyles and convincing or “training” (as in children) those around us to enjoy a life (and birthday/holiday) without sugar and carbs. As it is, the rest of us occasionally hit up against the dreaded wall of compromise. What now? Sure, you can bring a no-crust quiche for the work crowd (just deal, people), but if mom and dad always celebrate each anniversary with cherry pie and you’re throwing their 40th bash, what’s a cook to do?

And, yes, there’s always the answer: well, I’ll make it for them but just won’t eat any. But sometimes that solution just doesn’t cut it. Or, the fact is, we want to make a choice that at least seems like a “better” option for the people we cook for.

For a lot of folks, the sweetener solution is sugar/honey or nothing. We understand the perspective of the all-natural crowd. Yet, we also see the point of those who believe that they’d rather incorporate a bit of the artificial realm to stay on track, so to speak. As Mark has mentioned in the past, “cheating” on a low carb lifestyle is not only a temporary compromise, it sets your body’s “acclimatization back a week.” He reminds us that the changes in biochemical rhythms and energy shift, so to speak, take “about three weeks of steady adherence.” So, when the occasion calls for sweet, here’s a brief primer on a few of the most popular choices.

Saccharine (Sweet ‘n Low):

Saccharine, in terms of the artificial set, was truly an original and has been around since the beginning of the 20th Century. The sweetener is an organic molecule made from petroleum. It was hailed as an important development for those with diabetes and was used without much concern until the 1970s when animal studies indicated that it caused cancer of the bladder, skin, uterus and ovaries, among other organs. The USDA moved to ban saccharine, but a compromise was reached that resulted in a warning label that might look familiar: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” The warning was removed in 2000. Though the studies were criticized and many claims downshifted in later years, the stigma stuck in many people’s minds. Today the American Medical Association cautions that children and pregnant women should limit their use of the artificial sweetener since not enough information is available to assess risk. Saccharine is known to cross the placenta.

Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal):

Famous for their memorable gumball campaign, aspartame added another choice to the sweetener line after some were scared off by the questions surrounding saccharine. The sweetener combines two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid with methanol. Like saccharine, the sweetener has a distinct taste, which some people like and others don’t. The FDA has done some 26 safety evaluations of the sweetener, and their reports show a clean record. Yet, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Aspartame, like MSG, is thought to be an “excitotoxin,” a compound that overstimulates nerve cells in the brain.

One proven concern is the inability of some people to metabolize phenylalanine, a component in aspartame. The problem is seen with people who have the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) as well as people with liver disease or women who are pregnant and have a high level of phenylalanine in their blood. High phenylalanine levels can result in brain damage, which is why products with aspartame have an FDA-mandated warning regarding their phenylalanine content.

Sucralose (Splenda, etc.):

Approved by the FDA in 1998, sucralose indeed starts out as sugar but is then chemically adjusted by swapping three hydrogen-oxygen groups with three chlorine molecules. The process makes it into a non-caloric sweetener because we’re unable to metabolize this new form. By most reports, sucralose doesn’t have that artificial aftertaste the earlier substitutes had, although baking results vary considerably despite the sugar cookie and cupcake strewn ads. And don’t let the small box fool you: sucralose has 600 times the sweetening kick that sugar does.

Most researchers, practitioners and other experts suggest that they haven’t seen the same kinds of problems with sucralose that they have with previous artificial sweeteners. It’s true that sucralose is relatively new on the scene, and many are watching for signs of problems past. Nonetheless, in the interest of equal time, we’ll mention a brief caution that is based on a collection of personal accounts rather than scientific evidence. It appears that a small number of people do have experiences resembling allergic reactions to the sweetener. Although we couldn’t find reliable human studies that measured or confirmed these symptoms’ relation to sucralose, there are probably enough stories out there to suggest that people play it safe and “test” their reaction to the sweetener with small doses initially. Also, as we said earlier, if the food or drink isn’t something that offers a real benefit to your body, you’re probably better off finding an alternative.


Stevia is an herb-based non-caloric sweetener that is available in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. Native to Paraguay, you can buy stevia in whole-leaf form or as a powder extract that you dissolve in water. The pull of this “alternative” sweetener is that it’s not part of the artificial crowd. It’s used in many corners of the globe and is considered safe for diabetics. Like sucralose, it packs a powerful punch. A few drops of the liquid have about the same sweetening power as an entire cup of sugar. Also like sucralose, it can be used for baking. The biggest drawback of stevia: many complain that it has a very defined and unappealing underlying flavor. Some say it’s an acquired taste. Others say it’s a taste not worth acquiring.

Ah, to each, his or her own! Meanwhile, anything you can do to wean yourself off that generic craving for sweetness is probably a good thing.

Care to share your thoughts and tips? Pull up a chair and type away, we say.

TheeErin, mgus, canonsnapper, original Mikz Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

8 “Health Foods” That Contain HFCS

A Cranky Crab Confesses: Yes, I Use Splenda!

FitSugar: Artificial Sweeteners Explained

Subscribe to Mark’s Daily Apple feeds

Sponsor note:
This post was brought to you by the Damage Control Master Formula, independently proven as the most comprehensive high-potency antioxidant multivitamin available anywhere. With the highest antioxidant per dollar value and a complete anti-aging, stress, and cognition profile, the Master Formula is truly the only multivitamin supplement you will ever need. Toss out the drawers full of dozens of different supplements with questionable potency and efficacy and experience the proven Damage Control difference!

About the Author

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!