More and more of us are trying to cut down our sugar intake as much as possible, recognising the spectrum of harmful effects sugar has on the body.
So, as sweeteners provide the sweetness we crave minus the sugar - it makes sense to swap our sugar for sweeteners, right?
Turns out it's not as simple as that! Read on to discover everything you need to know about sweeteners, including why sweeteners may be the lesser of two evils - rather than a healthful solution to ditching sugar.
What Are Sweeteners?
Sweeteners are added to food and drinks to create a sweet taste without sugar and its associated calorie and carbohydrate content. Most sweeteners are low or zero calorie and so they are often found in so-called 'diet foods'. The food industry saw a surge in the use of sweeteners when the sugar tax was introduced, making use of them to sweeten their products and save on their taxes! Aside from food products, you'll also find sweeteners in drinks, chewing gum and toothpaste.
Where Do Sweeteners Come From?
Where sweeteners comes from truly is complex, as with a quick Google - you will see the same sweetener labelled "Natural" or "Artificial" in different articles. Erythritol for example can be found naturally in plants, yet commercially it is chemically and artificially produced from corn. Therefore depending on the source, it may be classed as natural or artificial. Due to the cost of producing sweeteners, most commercially produced sweeteners are likely to be synthetically made, so if you do choose to consume sweeteners, do check this thoroughly.
- Natural - Natural sweeteners are normally derived from naturally sweet compounds such as sugar alcohols (interestingly also produced in the body as a by-product of metabolism). Natural sweeteners are often extracted from plants, leaves, fruit and veg - some are even derived from sugar itself. There can still be processing involved, but the chemical structure of the sweetener has not been changed. Refined white sugar for example would be classed as a highly refined natural sugar - Interesting!
- Artificial - Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes. Confusingly, they may be derived from naturally occurring compounds, but then the manufacturing process modifies their chemical composition resulting in a synthetic sweetener. This is often done with enzymes, bacteria or Fungi. You may even find these sweeteners labelled as "naturally occurring" which as you can see, it's all rather complex!
How Sweeteners Are Made
There are many different kinds of sweeteners. Some are extractions of a single compound (such as a sugar alcohol), others are manmade and some combine several different ingredients. Either way, the compound providing the sweet flavour is isolated and extracted using techniques such as fermentation, enzymes or heat to gain a potent source which can be granulated, powdered or compacted into the small tablet that we all recognise as a sweetener.
How Do Sweeteners Work?
Food molecules interact with taste buds on the surface of the tongue to signal flavour and taste to the brain via taste receptors. Sweeteners mimic the molecular  structure of sugar to bind with your specific taste receptor for sweetness and this is perceived by the brain as consuming a sweet food - amazing right? The difference between sugar and sweeteners is that the body will not breakdown sweeteners for calories, as they do not contain a source of energy such as the carbs you’d find in regular sugar.
What foods will I find sweeteners in?
Synthetically produced sweeteners are fast becoming a replacement for sugar in lot's of surprising places, from chewing gum, to health supplements to salad dressings - similar to an abundance of seed oils in our diets, we don't yet no the longer term impact of these "foods" on our health and wellbeing.
Which Sweeteners Are Bad for Us?
Arguably, and from a Real Food mentality and perspective for sure, all sweeteners are bad. For arguments sake, some are worse than others. Not all sweeteners are approved for use and some are in certain countries but not others. Of course, the ones which aren't approved for use in one country but are in another are probably the worst. It's likely that the difference in guidance is simply a lag between research findings and regulation implementation!
In the much-debated world of sweeteners it is the general consensus that Aspartame and Saccharin are the worst of a bad bunch. Saccharin has been linked with headaches, skin breakouts, breathing difficulties and even cancer. Studies have shown a link between aspartame consumptions and nausea, vomiting, mood disorders, diarrhoea, memory loss and vision problems.
Which Sweeteners Are Safe?
There are so many different types of sweeteners and in years been and gone we have seen some approved as safe, some blacklisted and some new kids on the block for which there’s too little evidence to make a decision yet! As it stands right now, sweeteners approved for use in the UK include:
- Acesulfame K
These have all undergone a rigorous safety assessment and are deemed safe for consumption by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). But safe doesn't always equate to optimal health. Just think about sugar, alcohol, inflammatory oils, takeaways and ultra-processed (junk) ‘food’ – they are all recognised as 'safe' to consume but none are beneficial to health.
Why Sweeteners Are Bad for You
Type the word sweeteners into your search engine and prepare to open a can of worms. You’ll need a Evolve Coffee or two if you’re planning on reading all of the weird and wonderful stories about sweeteners out there! But if sugar is so bad for us, surely sweeteners can’t be as bad? Worryingly, there’s evidence linking sweeteners to a whole spectrum of negative health outcomes. Here are some snippets from the tip of the proverbial iceberg of research which can help to explain why sweeteners may or may not be bad for you…
Sweeteners and Cancer
The debate surrounding sweeteners and cancer stems back to the 1970s, when some pretty frightening research  found a correlation between the use of cyclamate and saccharin (two sweeteners) and the development of bladder cancer in laboratory rats. The result was that saccharin was labelled as a food 'potentially hazardous to health' for some time, though this has since been revoked.
Most studies which have found a connection between cancer and sweeteners have investigated artificial sweeteners, rather than natural ones. Saccharin, Aspartame, Sucralose and Acesulfame K have all been linked with increasing the risk of cancer in laboratory rats – very worrying considering these are all approved as ‘safe’ for use in the UK.
However, there is no clear evidence to suggest that the USA Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved sweeteners are associated with increased cancer risk in humans. Based on current mainstream evidence, moderate use of sweeteners is unlikely to increase the risk of cancer in humans .
Sweeteners and IBS
Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a long-term chronic digestive condition which is common in the UK and many western populations. It causes digestive symptoms such as bloating, wind, constipation, diarrhoea and stomach cramps which are largely triggered and alleviated by diet.
Sweeteners, particularly artificial sweeteners, are hard to digest due to their unnatural chemical makeup which is alien to the gut. For thousands of years our ancestors have not ingested artificial sweeteners, so when they are suddenly introduced it is understandable that the body takes some time to adjust and digest them!
Artificial sweeteners have been shown to disrupt gut bacteria  and worsen the symptoms of IBS. Fructose based sweeteners and those which end in ‘-ol’ (such as sorbitol) have been found to be particular culprits for exacerbating symptoms of IBS.
IBS or no IBS, sweeteners cause digestive discomfort for many including bloating, diarrhoea and wind. So, if you do have IBS they are definitely something you’ll be looking to avoid!
Sweeteners and Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic Syndrome is a modern condition characterised by the cooccurrence of hypertension (high blood pressure), Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity. A diagnosis of Metabolic Syndrome increases the risk of things like heart attack, stroke and diabetic complications.
Studies have found that using artificial sweeteners may actually increase the risk of Metabolic Syndrome. Evidence has shown that the intended effects of low-calorie sweeteners in replacing sugar aren’t always reflected in health outcomes. It is thought that the latent effects of sweeteners on decreasing satiety and increasing appetite (our friends leptin & ghrelin!), impacting blood glucose and leading to increased nutrient poor calorie consumption and excess fat gain overtime, outweighing the initial benefits of fewer calories. Drat!
Sweeteners and Obesity
There are two sides of the coin when it comes to sweeteners and obesity. On the one hand, if someone enjoys sweet foods and these contain sugar which contributes to excess fat gain - then it makes logical sense that replacing the sugar in these foods with sweeteners will reduce their nutrient poor calorie consumption and thus have a beneficial effect.
On the other hand and as alluded to above, there are some pretty staggering studies which have found that using sweeteners frequently could actually cause excess fat gain. One theory to explain this seemingly paradoxical phenomenon is that sweeteners provide an artificial sweetness hundreds or even thousands of times sweeter than sugar itself.
By consuming them often, your sugar receptors and biology are thought to become highjacked and acclimatised to the heightened sweet flavour and so naturally sweet foods no longer satisfy cravings for sweet food and satiety/appetite regulation becomes dysfunctional.
This can create cravings for even sweeter foods which has been shown to stimulate appetite/least suppress satiety and create a cyclical impact which ultimately means more cravings, more nutrient poor calories and more excess fat gain!
Sweeteners, Obesity and Sugar-Free Drinks
A large-scale population study  have repeatedly shown that consumption of artificial sweeteners in diet drinks (such as Diet Coke) is linked with increased overall excess fat gain, abdominal fat and risk of obesity over time. It is thought that those who have an nutrient poor diet consisting of ultra-processed food like substances (aka junk food) are more likely to opt for artificially sweetened beverages to reduce their ‘overall calorie intake’, which could explain this correlation.
Can Sweeteners Cause Acne and poor skin?
Gut health and skin health work in synergy.
As artificial sweeteners are known to disrupt gut microbiota, consuming them frequently can cause skin breakouts. Put simply, if your gut is unhappy then your skin will be too – and it shows!
The effect of artificial sweeteners on gut microbiota, blood sugar levels and metabolism triggers an inflammatory response which is often regarded as the root cause of skin breakouts. Sweeteners are hard to digest and this can create an autoimmune response which underlies many chronic skin conditions such as acne, eczema and rosacea.
Chronic and even moderate sweetener consumption can even contribute to the development of Leaky Gut Syndrome and gut dysbiosis. This can lead to problems with effective digestion and absorption of nutrients and foods, GI illnesses, altered gut microbiota, poor immune function and even psychological impacts.
It is thought that gut dysbiosis or leaky gut leads to increased permeability in the small intestine which allows toxins such as lipopolysaccharides (LPS) into the blood and potentially triggering systemic inflammation/immune response.
If you’re having a hard time with gut health, check out our top tips to improve gut health along with the benefits of collage for optimal gut health.
Can Sweeteners Cause Anxiety?
Many people experience feelings of increased anxiety related to consuming sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners have been shown to be neurotoxic. Like other neurotoxins (MSG, artificial food dyes and high fructose corn syrup), sweeteners have long been shown to possibly disrupt the normal function of the nervous system . Scarily, one sweetener in particular – aspartame, has been shown to have such a profound effect on neurological function that high consumption can increase the risk of seizures . There’s a definite connection between sweeteners and mental health and we’d love to see tonnes more research into the connection.
Are Sweeteners Bad for Your Teeth?
It has been thought for some time that by replacing sugar in foods with sugar replacements, such as sweeteners, you can avoid the harmful effects of sugar on dental health. That’s because it is the combination of sugar, saliva and bacteria in the mouth which combine to create plaque (the unhealthy type as not all plaque is considered to be negative) and go on to cause tooth decay.
However, a peer reviewed study  exposed the dangers of sweeteners for dental health. A particular group of sweeteners called sugar alcohol polyols (such as sorbitol, xylitol and erythritol) were shown to create an acidic environment in the mouth which can lead to tooth erosion. It was also found that additives in sugar-free products lowered the pH of saliva and increased the risk of weakened tooth enamel.
The potential damage sweeteners can have on your dental health seems to be more to do with the other ingredients often found in sugar-free products such as acidic additives and preservatives. All in all, replacing the sugar in your diet with sweeteners could do more harm than good considering the wider effects of sweeteners on your health – so you’re best cutting them both out full stop!
Sweeteners When ‘Dieting’
The food industry has used sweeteners for decades to create so-called ‘diet friendly’ foods. When you take the fat and sugar out of foods to make them diet friendly you have one major problem – flavour! This is how ‘diet foods’ end up getting heavily processed, having to undergo a whole spectrum of amendments and additions to try and make them palatable with their shiny new low-fat or low-sugar label.
Sugar is a ‘dieting’ no-no, it’s incredibly energy dense, void of nutrients and causes insulin spikes and crashes which ultimately lead to cravings and lulls in energy! So, fashioned in their low calorie, high flavour package – do sweeteners have the answer to diet food that tastes great?
Do Sweeteners Cause Cravings?
As mentioned earlier, sweeteners are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sugar itself. When consumed often, this fools biology and sweetness receptors and can result in making naturally sweet food tasteless. Whilst you may be cutting down on calories in the short-term, this can cause havoc with cravings and lead you to seeking out sweeter and sweeter foods in the long-term.
Sweeteners can make low fat and low sugar foods more palatable but within the food industry, marketing can be misleading and manufacturers will often replace the flavour in low fat foods with sugar and vice versa. What’s more, foods with an unnaturally low-calorie content won’t leave you full for long. Throw in the fact that they’re more often than not ultra-processed, we think that’s a good a reason as any to stick to real food and real ingredients when seeking optimal health and weight status!
Personally, at Hunter & Gather we try to avoid any refined sugars, synthetically produced sweeteners completely and we watch our intake of any "natural" sugars due to their impact on insulin levels. There are some easy and simple swaps you can make, such as utilising raw honey in the summer months, when our ancestors would have foraged for this. Ensure you choose raw, unpasteurised and ideally locally made honey.
During the winter months, we opt for vanilla, or apple cider vinegars. Vanilla we add to recipes such as our Chia Pudding and apple cider vinegar makes a delicious salad dressing without the added sweeteners.
If you want some ways to help swap out refined sugar and synthetic sweeteners, why not try some of the following:
Will Sweeteners Break My Fast?
Sweeteners are a bit of a grey area when it comes to fasting. The general consensus is that a fast is a fast and you wouldn’t consume sweeteners on their own so what’s the point in asking? For arguments sake, and to get all science-y, sweeteners may contain calories and may stimulate insulin release. Even zero calorie sweeteners can trigger an insulin response in the body and so sweeteners are best avoided when fasting.
Are Sweeteners Keto Friendly?
A Keto diet is a low-carb way of eating and as sugar is a carb, limiting your intake of sugar is one of the first things you’ll learn when you start out with Keto. Lots of people will struggle as their body adjusts to a low-carb intake and replacing sugar with something like a sweetener can seem like a logical approach. Many sweeteners contain zero carbs and so it is argued that they are a safe food for Keto.
However, those who are serious about Keto will know that it is a lifestyle and not just a diet. Some core principles of Keto are to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce cravings and sugar dependency and enhance weight loss. These are all things which sweeteners interfere with. What’s more, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll recognise the wider impact of sweeteners on overall health are best avoided! So, whilst it could be argued both ways – we are team no sweeteners!
You can learn more about the Ketogenic Diet in our Beginner’s Guide to the Keto Diet and learn how to follow a successful ketogenic diet that works for you
Are Sweeteners Paleo Friendly?
The Paleo diet is a template of eating based on our pre-agriculture ancestors (circa pre 11,000 years ago). It’s based on eating only foods which our ancient ancestors would’ve been able to get a hold of – and sweeteners aren’t one of them! Envisage a hairy caveman cooking a whole animal over a log fire – throwing a stevia tablet into his bone broth was definitely not a thing!
Refined sugar is a definite no-no in the Paleo diet and cutting out refined sugar is one of the many reasons why people choose to go Paleo. But replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners is not a route on the Paleo path. Sweeteners were not only inaccessible to our ancestors but they are also incredibly processed and often entirely synthetic – the nail in the coffin when it comes to Paleo friendly! Instead of sweeteners, naturally sweet foods such as honey and maple syrup are used at certain times of year within the Paleo lifestyle.
Hey – Learn more about the Paleo Diet in our Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet.
Sweeteners and Diabetes
Many ‘Diabetic friendly foods’ utilise sweeteners instead of sugar as their low or no carb content makes them a safe bet for Diabetics – or does it?
How Sweeteners Affect Insulin
Insulin is released when we eat foods which contain carbs, as they are metabolised into sugars which enter the bloodstream before insulin is released to allow them to leave the bloodstream again. In Diabetics, this process doesn’t work as intended and increased insulin resistance or poor insulin production leaves sugar in the blood – which, in short, is harmful to health.
Interestingly, small amounts of insulin may be released before sugar enters the bloodstream. This is known as the cephalic phase insulin release and it is triggered by the sight, smell and taste of food as well as other mechanisms at play when we eat like chewing and swallowing.
Studies have found that the intense sweet taste of artificial sweeteners can cause an early cephalic phase insulin response . It is also thought regular consumption of sweeteners could alter our gut microbiota in a way which reduces insulin sensitivity, causing higher blood sugar levels and higher insulin production – both of which are bad news for Diabetics and those that are insulin resistant.
Will Sweeteners Raise Blood Sugar?
Consuming sweeteners won’t immediately raise blood sugar levels like when you eat sugar. As with most of the drawbacks of sweeteners, the problem lies in long-term use. One study has found that artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota  and further observational studies support this gut-glucose connection. However, further studies are needed to corroborate these findings.
Sweeteners and Gut Health
Sweeteners are thought to alter the balance of intestinal microbiota in the human gut . Natural and synthetic sweeteners have been found to cause dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut bacteria) and alter metabolic pathways such as glucose metabolism because of this. The gut is a super intelligent and an extremely important organ which communicates with the rest of the body – so anything which messes with your gut bacteria should be avoided at all costs! Especially substances that are very new to humans…
On a more relatable level, sweeteners have been shown to cause constipation, bloating and wind. Certain types of sweeteners called polyols are not readily absorbed in the intestine and so can cause even worse problems such as chronic diarrhoea. So, it’s no surprise that consuming sweeteners often can affect gut health when the consequences of consuming them are so evident to see!
How Can I Avoid Sweeteners?
Sweeteners are becoming more commonplace in processed food and drinks, often hiding where you'd least expect them. As always, the best place to hide hidden nasty ingredients is ultra processed, packaged food (like substances). So, if you're looking to avoid sweeteners and other synthetic ingredients, the best start you can make is to opt for natural, whole foods which are as minimally processed as possible and transparent ingredients.
Of course, checking the ingredients list on packaging is the best way to be sure there are no sweeteners in your food.
The Not So Sweet Summary: Our Stance on Sweeteners
According to the current scientific literature, the risk of sweeteners to health varies between individuals and depending on which type of sweetener is consumed.
Consuming sweeteners often has been linked with increased risk of cancer, obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, digestive disorders and even mental health conditions.
Overall, natural or artificial, safe or unsafe, sweeteners are a food additive which should be used with caution and, in our humble opinion, avoided as much as possible.
Simply put, we have not evolved as a species to consume them and they play no role in pursuing optimal health.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA) recognises sweeteners as a food additive and regulates their use with strict criteria. They make sure that sweeteners are ‘safe to use’ within certain amounts over a certain length of time.
This is all good and well, but do we seriously want to be told our food is 'safe'? Or would we prefer to be told it is natural, healthful and nutritious?
Don't know about you but we think that anything 'Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS)' or with an 'Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI)' just isn't appetising at all, however sweet!
So, what's best: sugar or artificial sweeteners? We think that's like choosing between a rainy Monday morning and a parking fine! If you do choose to include either in your diet on a regular basis we'd recommend using in moderation as much as possible.
If you can live without both (which you can!) then even better - happy and healthy eating!
 Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer
 Diet Soda Intake Is Associated with Long‐Term Increases in Waist Circumference in a Biethnic Cohort of Older Adults: The San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging