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They might be marketed as healthier, low-calorie alternatives to your favourite sweet treats, but are ‘sugar-free’ foods and drinks really better for you? Gymshark Central explore the reality behind the 'sugar-free' hype.
Both the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Diabetes Association (ADA) have approved (albeit cautiously) artificial sweeteners that are used in ‘sugar-free’ products to keep the same sweet taste, without the same sugar content. Credited with helping people to maintain a healthy bodyweight, sugar-free products can help to reduce your overall calorie consumption, cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has officially approved 5 types of artificial sweetener: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose and one natural low-calorie sweetener – stevia.
Sweetness without the calories? Approved by the AHA and the ADA? Where do I sign up?
Hold the bus. It’s not all sweetness and light.
While they might be approved, our bodies and brains have a lot of complex reactions to sweeteners that aren’t all that great. In fact, a study conducted back in 2017 by Imperial College London, challenged the fact that sugar-free is better for us at all!
Their study revealed that sugar-free and 'diet' foods are no more helpful in preventing type 2 diabetes and obesity than their sugary counterpart. They even went as far a suggesting that sugar-free foods could be contributing to the global epidemic due to a range of different concerns. While other studies have argued that a sugar-free diet can actually help to reduce the risk of these health issues, there are still concerns surrounding sugar-free products.
CONCERN #1 - Is sugar-free causing weight gain?
The first concern is that, while we may be getting less calories when we opt for a ‘sugar-free’ option, we’re more likely to replace them through other sources later in the day anyway.
This is because eating something labelled as ‘sugar-free’ tricks our brain into thinking that we can get away with eating high-sugar stuff later in the day. 1 sugar-free drink can then result in a slice of cake or a chocolate bar, which then results in us eating more sugar (and more calories) throughout the day. Not to mention, studies have also linked sugar-free foods to an increase in appetite.
'It seems that artificial sweeteners can change the way the body processes fats and proteins and is also linked to changes in our microbiome - our colony of bacteria in our digestive systems – which in turn has been shown to not process glucose (sugar) as efficiently. It is thought that the change in our microbiome affects our satiety levels (how satisfied we feel after eating) and could be causing people to eat more – fuelling the obesity crisis. Ironically 'sugar free' and 'diet' products could actually be causing weight gain', Nutritional Therapist, Jane Snooks told Gymshark Central.
CONCERN #2 - Does it mess with our taste buds?
Another potential risk is that ‘sugar-free’ products might actually be changing to the way that we taste food.
'Many products that claim to be sugar free actually contain something arguably much worse than sugar – artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than normal table sugar so nowhere near as much is needed to sweeten the food or drink in question – which means products can label themselves as 'sugar-free', Jane explained.
The more ‘sugar-free’ products we consume, the more we become crave it and expect it. We, therefore, have less tolerance for foods that aren’t as sweet. Foods such as fruit and veggies, then become less palatable.
In other words, nutritious foods then get sacrificed for more appealing, ‘sugar-free’ snacks.
CONCERN #3 - Does it change how we see food?
The mind games don’t stop there. Artificial sweeteners can play another trick on us as well!
Studies have shown that eating too much ‘sugar-free’ food, can lead to us disassociating sweetness with calorific intake, therefore resulting in us opting for sweeter over more nutritious meals as we don't consider sweet foods to be packed full of sugar and calories.
CONCERN #4 - Is sugar-free safe?
We already know that to make something 'sugar-free' taste decent, other alternative ingredients have to be used. But the question is, are these 'other ingredients' actually safe? The truth is, we don’t really know.
'In truth, more and more evidence is showing that certain artificial sweeteners can also cause metabolic changes in the body which may contribute to diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, one of the most used artificial sweeteners in diet fizzy drinks, aspartame, is particularly linked to abdominal obesity which in turn is linked to cardiovascular issues such as heart attacks and strokes', Jane revealed.
Not exactly encouraging, right?
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
Sugar-free doesn’t have to be avoided entirely, but neither does sugar in its natural form. This might come as a bit of a shock to you, but sugar is not the enemy. Fruit, for example, might be high in sugar but is it all packed full of good stuff that our bodies need. If you're craving a sweet kick, you would be better off reaching for a banana rather than man-made confectionaries.
In short, just as with most things, both can be consumed in moderation alongside a balanced and nutritious diet.
With thanks to Jane Snooks. You can find out more about Jane and her research here.