With weight loss and diabetes at the top of many people’s minds, sugar substitutes have flourished. Almost every restaurant keeps its table stocked with as many packets of Equal and Splenda as it does the real thing. But despite the growing popularity of guilt-free sweeteners, experts remain skeptical that the alternatives are better — and healthier — than the real thing.
“In theory, if you were to replace regular cola with diet, you would expect to see your weight go down,” says registered dietician and personal trainer Alexis Williams. “But sometimes people will replace the lost sugar with something else.”
Despite artificial zero-cal or low-cal sweeteners becoming de rigueur, obesity rates haven’t dropped substantially. “It’s been suggested in some studies that some sweeteners may make people crave actual sugar, but it’s really up in the air,” says Williams.
Williams isn’t the only person ambivalent about sweeteners, as the jury is still out on whether they help with weight maintenance and, more importantly, whether they might actually have a detrimental impact on health. According to a report conducted by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, some much-hyped (debated) sweeteners like Aspartame and Stevia are still a concern among researchers. The report recommends that Stevia, a plant-derived sweetener that’s only available in health food stores in Canada presently, be avoided. According to the report, high doses fed to rats reduced sperm production and encouraged increased testicular cell proliferation — a scary thought for any human male weighing his reproductive health against his desire for a harder belly. Long-term consumption of Aspartame (also known as NutraSweet) has been linked to an increased risk of developing leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer.
Saccharin, an over-the-counter sweetener only available in pharmacies, was also listed as a substance to be avoided. According to the study, saccharin has been linked to various cancers (bladder in particular), and cannot be added to foods sold in Canada. Sucralose, the substance found in popular sugar alternative Splenda, was listed as safe for consumption, but the report noted that no independent tests on the product had been done. Still, when it comes to those suffering from diabetes — which can be negatively impacted by sugar consumption — experts recommend choosing the alternatives over the real thing.
“As for people with diabetes, it’s still recommended that they go with sweeteners,” says Williams.