Artificial Sweetener’s Bag of Tricks

Post by Paula Jahn, Co-Owner of Nourish Northwest, Registered Dietitian







It’s November—the month that starts the steady flow of sweet treats until the New Year. Whether it’s your kid’s leftover Halloween candy, the plastic cornucopia stuffed with snack size chocolate bars at work, or the many holiday celebrations, you are likely to consume more sugar in a two month period than you do the rest of the year. In fact, the average American gains about 1.4 pounds per year, the majority of that (about 0.8 pounds) in the two months around Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. It’s a safe bet that most of those extra calories are not coming from eating too many Brussels sprouts. While less than 1 pound of weight gain doesn’t seem alarming, research shows that it is a “sticky” pound that hangs on all year. This kind of gradual weight gain can cause a normal weight person to become overweight or obese in just 10 holiday seasons.

So, what is the solution? You may be tempted to supplant some of those sugar calories by substituting treats made with artificial sweeteners. There is always the person who brings cookies made with Splenda to a holiday gathering and acts as if she brought a pile of broccoli (and you proceed to eat them as if they were). Or, with all those sweets around, you may attempt to satisfy your sweet tooth with a zero calorie diet soda.

Zero calories, zero satisfaction.

As a dietitian, one of the most common questions I get is whether artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes are a healthy. There is good reason for this; decades of research and conflicting media messages have yet to give the public a conclusive answer. Take the most recent gaffe, for example. Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard teaching hospital, sent out a press release a few weeks ago entitled, “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners,” citing aspartame’s link to cancer. Less than a week later, the hospital issued an apology that the “data is weak” and that they were “premature in the promotion of this work.”

While the jury is still out on whether artificial sweeteners cause cancer or other illnesses, they certainly aren’t doing us any favors by helping with weight control. In the San Antonio Heart Study, participants who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda. There are a few possible explanations for this phenomenon. First is that we may justify eating that extra cookie or handful of candy because we “saved” the calories by drinking a diet drink. The second theory is that artificial sweeteners actually play a trick on our taste buds by fooling them, at least momentarily, into thinking that we obtained calories from that sweet treat. The appetite may catch on to this trick later in the day and seek out those calories that were promised but not delivered, causing cravings for sugar. Obesity expert, Dr. Ludwig, explains that it is also possible that artificial sweeteners provide an overstimulation of the sugar receptors on the tongue because they are so much more potent than sugar. This may cause us to crave more and more intensely sweet foods and shun naturally sweet foods such as fruit.

These chocolate coconut truffles are made with dates. No added sweeteners, artificial or otherwise!

Where does this leave us this holiday season? My advice has always been to limit all added sweeteners (sugar, corn syrup, juice concentrate, etc) and avoid artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame, and neotame). The bottom line is that artificial sweeteners are not nutritious, do not promote health and we don’t know the health effects of regular consumption of these chemicals over a long period of time. Savor and enjoy your favorite sweet treats in moderation. Pause for a little talk with yourself before reaching into the candy bowl to ask yourself if you truly love what you’re about to eat. For example, I ate three mini candy bars on Halloween. If I slowed down and talked myself through the experience of eating one of them, I would have said, “This is too sweet, doesn’t have much flavor, and has a waxy texture. I don’t want another one.”  If you allow yourself to indulge in your favorite holiday desserts, made with real sugar and real butter, you are likely to feel more satisfied, less deprived and less stressed about food during the holidays. And we all know–one less thing to stress about during the holidays is a sweet thing!

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