Food Review: artificial sweeteners

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Sugar has been out of favour for some time now, with people ‘quitting sugar’ left, right and centre and raving about how incredible they feel as a result. The recent release of ‘That Sugar Film’ has no doubt added fuel to the sugarless dieter’s fire,  as it highlights the high sugar content of many food products that are commonly perceived to be healthy. Certainly few of us would argue any health benefits of sugary foods, but do we really need to go cold turkey? And are artificial sweeteners a healthier alternative?

Excessive sugar intake is linked to weight gain, obesity and dental caries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that no more than 10% of our total daily caloric intake should comprise of free sugars: a term which includes the sugars found in honey, syrups and juices, as well as all sugars added to food and drinks by ourselves, cooks, and manufacturers.
With all the hype about reducing our sugar intake, it is no wonder that the spotlight has turned to sugar alternatives, AKA artificial sweeteners.
What is it? 
Artificial sweeteners are food additives that are not natural in origin and provide a sweet taste similar to that of sugar (although often with a slight aftertaste) whilst containing significant less kilojoules or calories. The most common artificial sweeteners are those in the family of high-intensity sweeteners, which are made with many times the sweeteners of table sugar, and therefore a smaller amount is required. Artificial sweeteners approved in Australia include alitame, acesulfame potassium (Ace K), aspartame, advantame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, sterol glycosides and thaumatin.
Pros: 
  • Provides an almost calorie-free alternative to sugar which can assist those aiming for weight loss.
  • Useful for diabetics as a sugar substitute as it does not increase blood glucose levels and can therefore aid diabetes control.
  • Approved  by the European Food Safety Authority as being safe for the general population at current levels of exposure, as well as by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and US Food and Drug Administration.
  • The World Cancer Research Fund found that evidence showing increased cancer risk from sweetener consumption in rats does not suggest that artificial sweeteners have any detectable effect on risk of any cancers in humans.
Cons:
  • Studies in rats have shown that aspartame caused lymphoma and leukaemia, cyclamate caused adverse effects on the reproductive system in male rats, and saccharin was associated with increased risk of bladder cancer…but before you choke on your diet coke please note that the amounts of sugar substitutes administered to animals were far greater than what we could consume in food and drink.
  • More studies are needed before we can be 100% confident of the safety of artificial sweeteners – no comprehensive studies have yet been completed in humans.
The alternative: 
The jury is still out on artificial sweeteners. Whilst they may have their place, such as in diabetes management, we still don’t know a whole lot about them!  When it comes to sugar, rather than quitting altogether, we should aim to enjoy it in moderation. The term free sugars does not refer to the naturally occurring sugars in fresh fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and dairy. We can aim to reduce our intake of free sugars whilst still including adequate fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and dairy in our diet. Where possible we can try natural alternatives in place of sugar – like adding one of your two recommended serves of fresh fruit to your breakfast cereal rather than table sugar, or changing flavours using vanilla extract or spices such as cinnamon instead.

 

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