Artificial sweeteners – good or bad?

As with most answers in nutrition, it’s not black and white.

Lite n’ Easy dietitian, Melissa Holloway breaks down the facts about artificial sweeteners and how to understand the pros and cons to help make informed decisions.

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose over the years have faced controversy, with some people remaining suspicious that they may cause cancer and other health issues.  The Cancer Council states that there is no sufficient evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners used in diet drinks and food can cause cancer. While Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) have set maximum permitted levels of sweeteners that manufacturers can use in products that are deemed to be safe.

It might seem like a sweet deal that you get to have sweet food without the added calories from sugar, but it appears it’s not that simple. While some studies show that switching to sweeteners can lead to a modest reduction in weight, more recent research is looking into the effect of sweeteners on the gut microbiome, with suggestion that it might increase your risk of disease via your gut bacteria.


The pros and cons of sweeteners

Sweeteners are a way of skipping calories, without sacrificing on a sweet flavour.  If you are drinking a lot of soft drink and find it hard to go cold turkey, switching to a ‘diet’ version, will certainly help to cut down the amount of sugar and extra calories they add to your day. A recent study conducted in the US showed that those who switched to diet drinks lost the same amount of weight over a 6 month period as those who switched their soft drink for water.

What sweeteners don’t do is help you to transition away from highly sweetened foods. Like salt, our tolerance for sweetness can be changed over time – we can gradually work our way down to lower levels of added sugar, until we find we don’t need our food to be sweetened as much as we used to.  That’s a good thing, because a lower preference for strong sweet foods will mean your palate is more attuned to regular whole foods that aren’t as sweet. A great way to try this out is instead of adding sweetener to tea or coffee, cut your sugar portion by half for a week or two. You might just find that you don’t like your drink with as much sugar anymore.


It’s not all about sugar

Just because a food or drink has sweeteners added rather than sugar, doesn’t automatically make it a healthy food.  Sugar-free chocolate biscuits are a great example. They contain the same number of calories, fat and protein as the regular version, and only slightly less carbohydrate. Sugar-free, whilst appearing to sound healthier, only swaps one sweet food for another sweet food. And it’s not only sugar you need to think about.  Soft drink, whether diet or not, contains acids that can cause erosion of the enamel on your teeth, leading to a greater likelihood of tooth decay. On a more uncomfortable note, having large amounts of artificial sweeteners can cause gut discomfort as all they draw extra water into the large intestine and may lead to diarrhoea.


At the end of the day

Having a food or two with artificial sweeteners everyday within a healthy diet doesn’t appear that it will harm your health in any way. If we are talking about a bit more than that, for example: sweeteners in coffee, a bottle of diet soft drink, and various diet foods such as sugar-free chocolate bars and jellies – then it’s probably time to review your relationship with sweet foods.

If you are wanting to reduce your sugar intake overall, rather than focussing solely on ‘sugar-free’ or ‘diet’ foods, aim to gradually reduce the amount of strong-flavoured sweet foods in your diet and choose whole foods to add sweetness.


Try these tips to switch out sugar for naturally sweet whole foods:

  • Switch your sweet yoghurt or cereal at breakfast for stewed fruit with plain yoghurt or cereal.
  • Instead of a milkshake, make up a delicious zingy smoothie with milk, fresh fruit and frozen banana.
  • For a sweet snack to get you through the afternoon, try adding dried fruit and chocolate bits to a nut mix.


Why Lite n’ Easy?

Lite n’ Easy uses portion control to minimise the use of added sugar.  Whether you are looking for weight loss, or healthy convenience Lite n’ Easy offers a range of portion-controlled, nutritionally-balanced meals to suit your needs. Give us a call on 13 15 12 or order online now.


Melissa Holloway is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with extensive experience across a range of industries including aged care, elite sport and in hospitals. She is passionate about ensuring people have access to not only fresh and healthy food options but also that people get to choose food that they truly enjoy. As a mum, Melissa loves preparing healthy and delicious food for her family.