Unmasking the Hidden Realities of Sweeteners

Posted on February 22, 2024

Unmasking the Hidden Realities of Sweeteners


There is a sense of bliss that comes with indulging in something sweet. Our taste preferences were developed during food scarcity, priming us to prefer sweet flavors from birth. Humans adapted to high-calorie foods, such as those rich in sugar, to survive. Although our food supply has dramatically changed and is now readily available to most people, our brains have evolved little since.


In the last 40 to 50 years, concern has risen over the consumption of too much sugar and its link to obesity and diabetes. To outsmart biology, the artificial sweetener industry arose. We want to have our cake and eat it too by still enjoying the taste of sweet foods without the negative consequences of excessive sugar intake. At a glance, artificial sweeteners seem like the perfect miracle food. They don't require land for growing, and most pass through our bodies unmetabolized, making them zero-calorie and safe for diabetics. However, more than 100 years after their invention, their safety and effectiveness remain widely debated. As our taste buds dance to the symphony of sugary delights and the promise of a calorie-free treat, we are deterred from questioning the safety of artificial sweeteners.


The safety questions surrounding artificial sweeteners have prompted people to rethink their diet choices. Since all sugar is not created equal, learning about the options available and how they affect our well-being is essential. 


The Problem with Sugary Foods

Sugar isn't inherently bad and is necessary for normal body function. It is a type of carbohydrate that makes up a healthy diet, such as proteins and fats. Our bodies digest and break down carbohydrates into glucose, which fuels most body tissues. Sugars are caloric, sweet-tasting compounds that occur widely in nature, including fruits, vegetables, honey, and human and dairy milk. But there is a difference between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar. Added sugars are found in processed foods such as candy, juices or fizzy drinks, pastries, and condiments like ketchup.


Many people consume large amounts of added sugar, which has no nutritional benefits and isn't as sweet in our bodies as on the tongue. This puts them at risk of developing problems such as high blood sugar, dental issues, obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Added sugars should make up 5% of the calories (energy) you get from food and drink daily, making the case for sugar substitutes. Sugar substitutes taste sweet but with fewer or no calories compared to sugar. Artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and novel sweeteners are the categories that make up sugar substitutes. 


Artificial sweeteners, sometimes called non-nutritive sweeteners, are substances designed to substitute sugar. They taste like sugar but have fewer calories. Most have less than three calories per teaspoon compared to one teaspoon of sugar, which has 16 calories. Sweeteners can, however, be 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar. Traditionally, artificial sweeteners were the best sugar alternative for people living with diabetes because they don't spike blood sugar levels in the same way sugar does. Doctors warn that lower and no-calorie sweeteners can help reduce sugar intake, but they don't necessarily make a healthy food or drink.


The Science Behind Artificial Sweeteners

Nutritionally, sugar does not offer our bodies much in terms of health. It lacks some good things, like vitamins and proteins, that keep the body functioning at its best. However, eating sugar releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical that lights up the nervous system and stimulates areas of the brain related to addiction. 


When you take sugar, the blood sugar levels go up, followed by a sugar drop. You then crave more sugar and carbohydrates, which can quickly become a rollercoaster. Artificial sweeteners offer a sweet taste our body is wired to crave. The problem is that they are very sweet, which can completely bombard the nervous system with that dopamine-releasing sweetness. However, once the effect wears off, the brain craves that feeling, pushing you to reach for more artificially sweetened foods. And you hardly put much thought into this because of the low to no-calorie promise that makes you think you are making a healthy choice.


Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other health agencies worldwide consider artificial sweeteners safer for human use, scientific evidence is still in progress. The growing body of literature suggests that artificial sweeteners could cause DNA damage and increase the risk of cancer. The controversy leads to the conclusion that just like smoking is legal for adults, approved use of artificial sweeteners doesn't make them a healthy choice. 


Some of the common artificial sweeteners include:



Aspartame became a sweetener through an accidental discovery by James Schlatter, a research scientist chemist for G.D. Searle and Company. He happened to lick his fingers when developing a new ulcer drug in 1965, and that initiated its use as a sugar substitute. It now goes by brand names like NutraSweet®, Equal®, and Sugar Twin®.


A gram of aspartame contains only four calories, the same as sugar. But since it's 200 times sweeter than sugar, you only use a small amount to get the same sweetness factor.



  • It has power over weight; therefore, you only need to use a small amount.
  • It does not impact blood sugar, making it suitable for people with diabetes.
  • It prevents dental cavities



  • There are conflicting conclusions about its safety. Scientific evidence suggests that aspartame may be linked to cancer. One of the most extensive trials on the effects of aspartame showed that people who consumed it at high levels were 15% more likely to develop cancers such as breast, colon, stomach, prostate, and endometrial cancers.
  • It may cause increased hunger due to its low-calorie content.
  • Aspartame could negatively impact the gastrointestinal microbiome and promote a pro-inflammatory environment in the digestive tract.
  • Has a bitter aftertaste.



Sucralose, famous under the brand name Splenda, is made from sugar in a multi-step chemical process in which three hydroxyl groups are replaced with chlorine atoms. It was jointly developed by Tate & Lyle and Jonhson & Johnson and was introduced in the United States in 1998. It is now a common sugar substitute in cooking and baking and has been added to thousands of products globally.



  • It is calorie-free.
  • It's stable on the shelf and can withstand high temperatures of up to 246 degrees F, making it suitable for certain cooked and baked foods.
  • It has a zero glycemic index, making it safe for people with diabetes.



  • It doesn't quite taste like traditional sugar, mainly when used in cooking.
  • It may upset the microbe balance in your gut.


Possible Health Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are alluring since they contain low calories but provide robust sweetness. The danger with these non-nutritive sweeteners is that you don't get a sense of fullness or satisfaction, yet they simultaneously wire the taste buds to require more and more sweetness. The result is over-indulgence to the point of becoming addicted or triggering health problems like obesity.


Artificial sweeteners are added to most food options, even seemingly healthy choices like yogurt and breakfast cereal. Generally, we should all eat less sugar, and brands are capitalizing on lower or no-calorie sweeteners to attract conscious consumers. However, the findings from research into sweeteners reveal that they may be particularly detrimental to our bodies. Some research on long-term, daily use of artificial sweeteners suggests a link to cancer. However, the risk of cancer is generally low. Some of the immediate concerns and side effects of sweeteners include:


  • Increased Appetite

Artificial sweeteners may activate reward pathways in the brain that increase appetite. Evidence shows that high intakes of aspartame are associated with increased caloric intake, hunger, and sugar cravings compared to traditional sugar or water.


  • Weight Gain

Artificial sweeteners contain few calories, making many assume they will help with weight loss or management. Research, however, shows that long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners contributed to having a higher waist circumference and increased incidence of obesity. The exact reason why this happens is still being investigated. 


  • Poorly Regulated Blood Sugar

Although sweeteners do not impact blood sugar levels, there is evidence that they may increase insulin levels in the blood. Their sweet taste causes the pancreas to mistake them for sugar. This provides a possible explanation for the long-term use of artificial sweeteners and insulin resistance (Type 2 Diabetes).


High consumption of artificial sugars may also increase the frequency of reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar after eating). This is because the sweeteners increase insulin, which lowers blood sugar even when the body has not received any calories or energy from the sweetener.


  • Altered Microbiome

The gut microbiome reacts differently to artificial sugars and natural sugars. Some artificial sweeteners are linked to dysbiosis, an imbalance of good and harmful bacteria in the gut. The effects of this include bloating, migraines, irritability, autoimmune conditions, thinning of the barrier surrounding the intestines, and irritability.


  • Increased Risk for Stroke and Heart Disease

Although not conclusive, a study by the American Heart Association showed that frequently consuming beverages with artificial sweeteners in mid to late life was linked to a higher risk of stroke and other heart-related problems.


  • Heightened Risk for Metabolic Syndrome

There is a link between the use of artificial sweeteners and the development of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome refers to the risk factors that raise your risk of significant health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. The risk factors include fat around the waistline, low HDL cholesterol, high triglyceride levels, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure.


Are Sugar Alcohols Considered Artificial Sweeteners, and Are They Bad for You?

Just like artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are synthetically engineered. They occur naturally in some foods but are often extracted and added to foods labeled ''sugar-free''. They are not as sweet as artificial sweeteners but add texture and taste to many processed foods. Sugar alcohols are a source of both calories and carbohydrates. However, they are not digested well and are a lower-calorie source than traditional sugar. Commonly used sugar alcohols include xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol.


Contrary to what the name suggests, sugar alcohols do not contain alcohol. They belong to a class of carbohydrates called ''polyols'' and may contain zero to about ½ to 1/3 as many calories as sugar. They are not entirely absorbed into the bloodstream, which gives them a low glycemic index. Except for erythritol, sugar alcohols are generally safe if consumed in moderation. You will only experience problematic side effects if you consume too much or you have underlying issues. The small intestines bacteria ferment sugar alcohol carbohydrates, causing indigestion, bloating, and sometimes diarrhea.


Cutting Back on Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

According to dieticians, natural sugars are essential to our well-being. We need to balance natural sugars with other essential nutrients like fat or protein to satisfy sweetness and the essentials the body requires to function. The culprits we need to watch out for are foods with added sugars and artificial sweeteners. Given the controversy surrounding the use of artificial sweeteners, it is safer to cut back on them. Some healthier and safer alternatives to artificial sugars include:


Fresh and Frozen Fruit

Fruits are a healthy and safer substitute for added and artificial sugars. You enjoy the delicious sweet taste of natural sugars and several other nutritional bioactive compounds. Fruits can be taken in various forms and have the potential to blend with the ingredients of many food products for versatility. In addition, the fiber in fruits can help make you feel fuller for longer, reduce food cravings, and nourish healthy gut bacteria. Replacing sweet snacks with fruit also enables you to eat less calories and sugar, which supports healthy weight loss.


Like with any other food, a high fruit intake can cause you to consume too many calories. However, it isn't easy to overeat fruits. For maximum benefits, go for whole fruits over packaged or processed fruits.


Natural Sweeteners 

Natural sweeteners are a healthier choice than table sugar and artificial sweeteners. They are derived from natural sources but might undergo processing and refining. Still, some types of natural sweeteners are a healthier choice than regular sugar. Common examples include:



Raw honey is slightly sweeter than table sugar, but you need smaller amounts to achieve the same sweet taste. Unpasteurized honey consists mainly of fructose and glucose and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.




  • It's a source of natural sweetness with antioxidant properties that promote good health.
  • Honey has positive effects on cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory health.
  • It can be an effective treatment for colds and helps reduce seasonal allergies.




  • It is high in hard-to-digest carbohydrates, which makes it difficult for people with irritable bowel syndrome to digest.
  • It contains more calories compared to sugar, 21 vs. 16.
  • The quality varies depending on the source.


Maple Syrup 


Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. In its pre-form, it is high in calories but is considered a better alternative due to its nutrient content. One tablespoon of maple syrup contains about 52 calories.




  • Contains antioxidants and minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese.
  • Has a lower glycemic index compared to refined sugars. 
  • Boasts a rich flavor profile.




  • Maple syrup is a sugar with no fiber attached; therefore, eating too much can cause blood sugar and insulin swings. This could lead to increased hunger, potential weight gain, and other adverse health effects.


Coconut Sugar 


This is unrefined sugar harvested from the sap of the coconut tree. It comes in liquid form but can also be dried into crystals. Laird Superfoods formulated a coconut-based creamer packed with 80% less sugar but still tastes great and is guilt-free.




  • Because it is unrefined, it retains all its vitamins and minerals.
  • It has a lower glycemic index and, therefore, does not cause fluctuations in blood sugar.




  • It is slightly higher in calories than sugar.
  • It can be very coarse, making it difficult to use in some recipes.


Alternative Natural Sweeteners 

Also known as novel sweeteners or plant-derived noncaloric sweeteners. They are derived from natural sources and provide the benefits of both artificial and natural sweeteners. They don't cause blood sugar spikes or lead to weight gain. They are, however, less processed than artificial sweeteners and are more similar to their natural sources. They include:



This plant extract has little to no calories but is much sweeter than sugar. Stevia is considered a healthy alternative to added and artificial sugars.




  • It is very low in calories, making it suitable for those with diabetes or who need to control their weight. 
  • It can be used in various ways, such as in cakes, sauces, and pastries.




  • It has a noticeable taste after it has been refined, which puts off some people.


Monk Fruit 

The monk fruit is native to China and is extracted and dried into a powder that can be used as a sweetener. At Laird Superfood, we use monk fruit to add just the right level of sweetness to our products. Monk fruit is 200 to 350 times sweeter than sucrose and contains no calories, making it a healthier sugar alternative.



  • In addition to the sweet flavor, monk fruit contains mogrosides that boost antioxidant capabilities with anti-cancer properties.
  • It contains zero sugar, zero calories, and has no harmful side effects
  •  It does not affect blood sugar levels



  • Some commercially available monk fruit extracts have been processed and may contain other sugars or sweeteners.
  • Monk fruit is typically available as a powder but does not dissolve as quickly as sugar.


Should I Cut Sugar from My Diet?

You cannot remove all sugar from your diet because it means missing essential nutrients in fruits, whole grains, and dairy. Without sugar, the body seeks an alternative energy source and uses ketone for fuel. This means the body goes into starvation mode. Diets that completely cut out carbohydrates and sugars may cause symptoms like headache, fatigue, and brain fog. The sugar that we should be keen on eliminating from our diets is added and artificial sugars, which are common in processed foods.



Sugars, whether natural or artificial, must be consumed in moderation. Pay attention to the nutrition facts label and ingredient list of most food items to learn about the foods you consume. Also, be keen about labels such as 'low-sugar' or 'no-sugar' as they can be misleading and do not always indicate the most nutritious choice.


At Laird Superfoods, we are honest and transparent about our products to ensure you make a well-informed choice. We strive for human health and a healthy planet and use clean, high-quality ingredients in our products. We don't use artificial colors, flavors, or ingredients but focus on harnessing the power of plants to fuel you to become your best version.

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