The Science Behind Artificial Sweeteners and Natural Sugars

The variety options for sweeteners can be overwhelming. A nutritionist at Johns Hopkins offers insights into how to simplify the sweet life.

The New York Times revealed this week that the sugar industry, when checks on conflicts of interest within the science community were much weaker, systematically shifted the national conversation on dietary health harms away from sugar toward fat.

As we learn more about the dangers of sugar, we also need to evaluate alternatives to sugar: everything from honey and agave nectar to products like Equal and Splenda. There are a surprising number of alternatives to cane sugar.

Mayo Clinic organizes over 20 sweeteners into four distinct categories: artificial sweeteners (e.g., aspartame), sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol), novel sweeteners (e.g., stevia), and natural sweeteners (e.g., molasses). Every group contains many members under many names, each of which merits its own analysis.

To ameliorate the imminent cognitive sugar-crash, Joshua Nachman, a nutritionist at Johns Hopkins, offers some clear insights for a healthy relationship with the sweet stuff rendered by the aptly named Joe Sugarman in a recent article in the Johns Hopkins Health Review. Sugarman aptly renders the consumers’ conundrum:

"When it comes to choosing which sweetener to add to our morning cup of joe, we’re faced with a smorgasbord of possibilities. There’s the blue packet, the pink packet, the yellow one, the white, the brown. Sometimes, there’s even the option of adding honey or agave nectar. So how is a health-conscious consumer to choose?"

Fortunately, Nachman provides some concrete strategies for simplifying the options of available sweetners. First, avoid artificial sweeteners. Remember that first category of sweeteners in Mayo Clinic’s breakdown? Nachman simply says, “Avoid them. Period.” These calorie-free alternatives to sugar may seem like a sweet way to enjoy a cornucopia of goodies without packing on the pounds, but the added risks are far from worth it.

While they have long been the subject of scrutiny and criticized for links to cancer and other problems, Nachman says the primary problem with them is simply that they are too sweet. Much sweeter than sugar, artificial sweeteners cultivate an addiction to sweets at a level that can never be satisfied by healthy, natural foods. The best thing to do with artificial sweeteners, thus, is simply never to use them.

As Dr. Mark Hyman explains, sugar addiction is a real physiological condition. Food isn't just calories, says Hyman. Food is medicine. When you start to think of food as medicine, i.e. a way to maintain good health, a new perspective on nutrition will open to you. In fact, people use artificial sweeteners are 200% more likely to have a weight problem.

As an alternative to artificial sweeteners as well as ordinary, white sugar, Nachman endorses using stevia, a natural, calorie-free sweetener that has been used for hundreds of years in parts of Latin America. While stevia is also sweeter than sugar, Sugarman reports that it does not pose the same dangers of sweet-addiction that artificial sweeteners do because it has does not raise the glycemic index one’s blood sugar or have adverse effects on taste buds. Indeed, stevia has been found to ellicit healthy “anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immunomodulatory” effects. So stevia is a viable, calorie-free alternative both to artificial sweeteners and natural forms of sugar.

For times that call for a sweetener with some good-ol’ glucose, Nachman recommends sticking to raw honey, which he says is less sweet than agave and loaded with healthy anti-oxidants. 

Of course, these are all suggestions rather than draconian commandments. The main goal Nachman sets for his clients is simply to be mindful of their relationship with sweeteners. He draws attention to the World Health Organization’s more general prescription that recommends consuming approximately 25 grams of sugar per day. For those looking for a healthy way to wean addictive desserts from a diet, stevia may be a helpful substitute. Nachman endorses “whole foods” as sources of sweetness, like fruits and honey. And as for the elephant in the room—namely, ordinary table sugar—Nachman says he doesn’t even bring it into the home.


A dark matter hurricane is crashing into Earth

Giving our solar system a "slap in the face"

Surprising Science
  • A stream of galactic debris is hurtling at us, pulling dark matter along with it
  • It's traveling so quickly it's been described as a hurricane of dark matter
  • Scientists are excited to set their particle detectors at the onslffaught
Keep reading Show less

Are we all multiple personalities of universal consciousness?

Bernardo Kastrup proposes a new ontology he calls “idealism” built on panpsychism, the idea that everything in the universe contains consciousness. He solves problems with this philosophy by adding a new suggestion: The universal mind has dissociative identity disorder.

We’re all one mind in "idealism." (Credit: Alex Grey)
Mind & Brain

There’s a reason they call it the “hard problem.” Consciousness: Where is it? What is it? No one single perspective seems to be able to answer all the questions we have about consciousness. Now Bernardo Kastrup thinks he’s found one. He calls his ontology idealism, and according to idealism, all of us and all we perceive are manifestations of something very much like a cosmic-scale dissociative identity disorder (DID). He suggests there’s an all-encompassing universe-wide consciousness, it has multiple personalities, and we’re them.

Keep reading Show less

New study reveals what time we burn the most calories

Once again, our circadian rhythm points the way.

Photo: Victor Freitas / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Seven individuals were locked inside a windowless, internetless room for 37 days.
  • While at rest, they burned 130 more calories at 5 p.m. than at 5 a.m.
  • Morning time again shown not to be the best time to eat.
Keep reading Show less