Do you remember the famous line from the Incredible Hulk – “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”? Well that’s how I feel when the topic of artificial sweeteners comes up. Why does it make me angry (and I’m talking about “turning green and ripping through my favorite pair of jeans” angry)? It makes me angry because people have come to believe that “natural” sweeteners – AKA sugar, are better for you than artificial sweeteners. The truth is, of course, that the opposite is true. Some of the most popular artificial sweeteners are MUCH better for you than sugar.
Since I know that I’m fighting a violent tide of public opinion on this one, let me lay out my argument.
First and foremost, even if one day some artificial sweeteners are shown to have negative effects in some people, it will be nothing compared to the enormous evidence that already exists all around us that “natural” sweeteners are wreaking havoc with people’s health and physiques. It’s like someone living in Chernobyl worrying about the dangers of air pollution. When you’re drenched in nuclear fallout and dying of radiation poisoning, smog probably isn’t your biggest concern.
With that in mind, let us first attack the problem of perception. I’m not so worried about artificial sweeteners bad rap (though I think they have one – and undeservedly so), I’m much more concerned about natural sweeteners’ positive reputation.
First, the words we choose have a TREMENDOUS impact on people’s perception of an issue. Don’t believe me, just ask a politician. The biggest problem with sugar is that it’s considered “natural”. And by just about anyone’s standards, natural connotes something good. But what the hell does “natural” mean, anyway? If you ask the FDA they’re going to stare at you blankly like a spastic 4 year old. Why? Because they have no definition for natural. They have no definition for natural whatsoever. So all claims that something is natural is happening without any sort of FDA approval. No biggie though, right? We all have a common-sense feeling for what is natural, Don’t we? If you look it up in the dictionary, natural means something occurring in nature. And I think that you could get most people to buy off on that notion.
Here’s the problem – occurring in nature doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good thing. Venomous snakes occur in nature. As do black widow spiders, writhing maggots and screaming babies. And Cyanide – the HIGHLY toxic poison – occurs in nature too (it’s found in peach pits and apple seeds to name a few sources). But I wouldn’t advise eating any.
So, as you can see, simply being “natural” and occurring in nature shouldn’t be enough to automatically place something in the healthy column in people’s minds. But nonetheless, in public perception, if you say something is natural people automatically assume that it’s good for you. But just as a “natural” piece of wood can be used to club a baby seal to death, “natural” sweeteners, with their MASSIVE metabolic effects, will club you to death from the inside just the same.
To make matters even worse, many so-called “natural” sweeteners are actually carefully engineered, NEVER found in nature, get their calories 100% from carbs (read my post on how carbs are toxic – despite what you may have heard) and are loaded with fructose – the substance that is sometimes called the “Satan Sugar”. Fructose’s moniker as the “Satan Sugar” is an important one, as fructose is a MAJOR component in virtually all natural sweeteners. Why is it called the “Satan Sugar”? Simply put, because fructose has been convincingly linked to obesity, gout AND fatty liver disease. (But don’t take my word for it – You can read more about fructose’s relationship with gout from the brilliant Gary Taubes here: www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog ) (You can read more about Fatty Liver Disease and fructose from the equally brilliant Michael Eades, M.D. here: http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/low-carb-diets/pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain/)
Essentially, fructose will make you fatter than other sugars and it is almost certainly the cause of more negative health effects than any other sugar. When researchers want to make lab animals insulin resistant, they feed them high amounts of fructose.
This subject is so important that I’m writing a blog posting that will deal with this lone issue but in the meantime, here is an article in the New York Times that will back up what I’m saying about fructose: www.nytimes.com/does-fructose-make-you-fatter/
Suffice it to say that MINIMIZING fructose in your life will be a good thing for both your health and your waistline.
By way of example, let’s actually look at some of the more popular natural sweeteners. Agave syrup is up to 92% fructose. High fructose corn syrup is usually 55% fructose, but can go up to 90%. Plain old sugar is 50% fructose. Honey is around 55% fructose. And all of these “Satan Sugar” delivery devices are considered “natural” sweeteners – once again highlighting the fact that simply being “natural” does not make you healthy.
So, now the question becomes, if “natural” sweeteners aren’t good for you, are they at least better for you than “artificial” sweeteners? The answer is no. Not in my opinion.
If good health and a lean body are our goals, we certainly don’t want to increase our consumption of fructose as it negatively impacts both one’s health and one’s ability to get lean. Nutrasweet (Aspartame), Splenda (Sucralose) and Saccharin (all considered “artificial” sweeteners) on the other hand, have not been linked in any way beyond suspicion with any significant health problems, and are MUCH less metabolically active. Additionally, they are all many times sweeter than sugar (Sucralose is 600x sweeter for example) so they have effectively zero calories because they’re used in such tiny amounts.
One thing I need to point out is that most people think of the blue, yellow and pink single serving packets when you mention artificial sweeteners but that’s not 100% true. The packets contain a mix of a tiny amount of artificial sweetener mixed with a much larger amount of maltodextrin (a carb made from corn). It takes so little artificial sweetener to impart a sweet taste that manufacturers have to add maltodextrin to give the product enough “body”. Otherwise you’d open the packet, pour the contents into your drink and you wouldn’t see anything come out except for perhaps a tiny bit of dust.
What this means is that when people use those little packets, they aren’t really using 100% artificial sweeteners but rather a mix (with 99.9% of the calories coming from the maltodextrin). Those carb calories add up quickly so I always recommend that people use the 100% pure artificial sweeteners. They can be mixed with water or you can use the dry powder depending upon what you’re using it for.
Either way though, with or without the maltodextrin, if you want to stay leaner and healthier, there is no question that so called “artificial” sweeteners are superior to “natural” sweeteners. Still not convinced? Let’s boil the argument down to a simple comparison.
“Artificial” versus “natural” sweeteners:
Natural Sweeteners Artificial Sweeteners
Contain Calories Contain effectively zero calories
Contain carbohydrates Do not contain carbohydrates
Raise insulin levels significantly Do not significantly raise insulin levels
Cause glycation of tissues (makes proteins stick together) Do not cause glycation of tissues
Measurably suppress immune function Do not measurably suppress immune function
Cause tooth decay Do not cause tooth decay
I’d have to say that artificial sweeteners win it hands down. Remember, I’m not trying to convince you that artificial sweeteners are good for you, just that they are MUCH better for you than natural sweeteners.
What has been seen in person after person is that if they eat the natural sweeteners, they add fat and their health will ultimately begin to deteriorate. Let’s look at a group of people that know how to improve body composition dramatically – bodybuilders. There’s probably not a bodybuilder in the world that recommends eating any sugar in order to get leaner but the vast majority of them do use artificial sweeteners.
One goal that all of my readers share is a desire to get leaner and healthier, and “artificial” sweeteners are a tool that can be used in that pursuit.
First of all, it takes an infinitesimal amount of “artificial” sweetener to sweeten something (it’s roughly 1/600th the amount) so there is an immediate calorie savings there. Secondly, no metabolic effects AT ALL can be measured after ingesting an “artificial” sweetener. Put as little as a teaspoon of sugar in your mouth, however, and a veritable metabolic firestorm begins. It will have a direct effect on some of the most important hormones involved in determining your bodyfat and health (insulin and liproprotein lipase just to name two.)
I don’t understand how anyone who thinks about it for even a second can say that artificial sweeteners are more dangerous than carb-based “natural” ones as we all know loved ones battling Diabetes.
But what about reports of adverse affects that the FDA has received about artificial sweeteners?
I don’t deny that there are lots of reports of adverse reactions to artificial sweeteners. I think it’s very imporatant the they are continually scrutinized and never given a 100% perfect bill of health. It should be an ongoing process. A huge amount of money has been spent on artificial sweeteners, however (they are some of the most studied food additives on the planet), and yet, despite all of this, there is no conclusive evidence that they have any harmful effects. Remember that EVERY food in existence has reports of adverse effects. It’s possible that a small subset of people don’t respond well to certain artificial sweeteners even though no study has ever shown a rock solid correlation despite millions and millions of dollars being spent by companies that want to try and prove that connection.
I’m not saying that it’s completely impossible that in the future it might be determined that some people may have adverse issues with “artificial” sweeteners. Most likely, those issues will be very minor and in a very small percentage of people if there are any at all because “artificial” sweeteners are being used SO heavily in today’s world that we would have seen the negative issues arise in a big way already if they were common.
On the other hand, there is an ENORMOUS amount of evidence showing the damage that natural sweeteners are causing. Skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates can be explained at least in part (if not for the most part) on the increased consumption of carbohydrates in the diet. Much (or perhaps most) of this comes from an increased consumption of the natural sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, sugar, etc.) and they all produce easily measurable effects on the body.
I can hear you asking: What about studies that show people gaining weight even if they use artifical sweeteners? The answer to that is that most people, as sad as it is, are going to get fatter no matter what they do, because they don’t know enough about what foods to eat and what foods to skip. If you know what you’re doing, however, and eat a good diet and minimize carbs and sugar you can and will get leaner. And on a strict diet like that “artificial” sweeteners can be a real treat. The artificial sweeteners make it much easier to stay away from sugar (like regular soda), and that is a huge benefit for anyone attempting to get lean. There is no question that in my life, diet sodas have allowed me to reduce my calories significantly without suffering (at least without suffering as much. 😉 I never promised getting lean would be easy – just possible).
My suggestion to you is to reduce your carbohydrate consumption as much as you can. Use artificial sweeteners if they make it easier for you to still get some sweetness in your diet without any calories. Some sucralose in your coffee or iced tea will satisfy your sweet tooth and help you stay away from desserts and other sugary snacks. Just be sure to use 100% artificial sweeteners and not the packets or pourable versions which are loaded with maltodextrin.
Your abs will thank you as they claw their way out from under your beer belly.