Even if you’ve never heard of aspartame, stevia or sucralose, you’ve almost certainly seen and tasted them.
Those scientific-sounding names are more commonly known as artificial sweeteners — the brightly colored “sugar” packets you can find at most any restaurant, diner or coffee shop. With brand names such as Equal, NutraSweet, Truvia and Splenda, they are often seen by consumers as healthier alternatives to plain old sugar.
And, at least in some ways, they are.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right choice for everyone or for every circumstance.
“Moderation is the key to any healthy diet,” says Kelsey Tiller, a registered dietitian at Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital. “It’s important to remember that while artificial sweeteners can help reduce caloric intake, a healthy diet is about much more than just the number of calories you consume – it’s about the quality of those calories, too.”
An attractive alternative
Artificial sweeteners — a list that also includes Sunett, Nectresse, Sweet One and Sweet N’Low — deliver on one key promise: they can sweeten up foods without significantly increasing your caloric intake.
That can make artificial sweeteners an attractive choice for weight management and for people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes.
“It’s certainly important for all of us to pay careful attention to sugar consumption,” Tiller says. “Over time, too much sugar can impact metabolism, raise your risk of heart disease, cause tooth decay and more.”
Safe to use, but...
Although critics of artificial sweeteners claim they can cause cancer and other health problems, scientific evidence doesn’t support that claim.
Still, much like sugar, it’s important to use the products – and foods and drinks made with them – in moderation, Tiller says.
“Just because something is marketed as sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s good for you – and may be just the opposite,” she says. “Often, foods that are marketed as sugar-free are processed foods that contain other ingredients you might want to avoid.”
Tiller says some people prefer to use honey, agave and other alternatives as substitutes for traditional sugar or artificial sweeteners. But it’s important to remember the body processes those just like regular sugar, so be sure to limit your consumption.
“For people trying to improve their lifestyle and diet, my suggestion is always to focus on eating lots of whole foods,” Tiller says. “Get back to the basics: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lean proteins.”