Are you confused about which sugars are “healthy” or which sweeteners are “safe” to consume? Are you wondering what about the difference between the two types of sweetness? If curiosity is calling, this blog is for you! We will address non-nutritive sweeteners, sugars and added sugars, and where to look on Nutrition Facts Label. In addition to defining these terms, we will delve into the “why” behind each sweetness and the impact they have on our health, specifically our gut-brain axis and our gut microbiome.
Defining Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
First, “non-nutritive sweeteners” is the umbrella term for artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and novel sweeteners. Like the name implies, these sweeteners have no nutrients, which means they are also a zero-calorie option. Artificial sweeteners are chemically derived and made in labs. Examples include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and acesulfame potassium.
Similarly, sugar alcohols are made through chemical modification of sugar (glucose) or less likely by way of fermenting natural sugars from fruits and vegetables (fructose). Examples of sugar alcohols include erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol, and isomalt.
Lastly, novel sweeteners are still non-nutritive, but are derived from natural sources. Usually, they are less processed than artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Examples of a natural sweetener are
allulose, monk fruit, stevia, and tagatose.
Impact of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners on Our Health
Now, we will dive into how these non-nutritive sweeteners impact our health. Let’s follow an ice cream treat made with sucralose from the time it touches our tongue to the moment our body registers what fuel it’s being given. Our taste buds initially sense the sweetness but do not have the complexity to know if it is derived from sugar or a sweetener.
One long nerve called the vagus nerve connects our brain and our gut and acts as a telephone line so the two can constantly communicate. Once the brain identifies sweetness of the ice cream, it sends a message to our gut which has specialized cells that tell whether the sweetness is real sugar or something artificial, and if there is any nutrient value associated with the sweetness. Then, the gut sends a message back with a stamp of satisfaction or a stamp of disapproval. The specialized cells in the gut are unsatisfied with a non-nutritive option and would prefer the real sugar to satisfy a sweet craving.
According to recent research from August 2022, all the non-nutritive sweeteners are generally regarded as safe by the FDA; however, some may be worse for our health than others. It was found that saccharin and sucralose may impact blood sugar more than we initially thought, and that the artificial sweeteners change our gut health by stripping our gut of healthy microbiota. This is seen when artificial sweeteners are consumed regularly in as little as 2 weeks. If selecting a non-nutritive sweetener, opt for a novel sweetener like stevia or monk fruit.
Pros and Cons of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
- Sweet taste without increasing energy intake
- Minimally affects blood sugar for people with Type 2 Diabetes (except maybe sucralose and saccharin)
- Do not increase the chances of developing dental cavities
- Provides no nutritional value
- Negatively impacts and/or alters gut health
- May lead to inadequate calorie intake
- Not a 1:1 substitute for sugar
Defining Sugar & Added Sugar
Second, total sugar encompasses both natural sugar and added sugar. Both are nutrient-dense and some are more beneficial for our health than others. First, natural sugars are found in whole, unprocessed foods like fruits (fructose), dairy (lactose), and 100% honey, maple syrup, and agave (fructose/glucose). These foods provide energy in the form of carbohydrates so they are calorie-dense and are packed with vitamins and minerals.
Added sugar includes natural sugars or naturally derived sugars(like sucrose or table sugar) that have been added to foods during processing, cooking, or before eating. Added sugars are often found in coffee drinks, candies, sodas, baked goods, and sports drinks. However, when we read the ingredients list on a food item and the only sugar ingredient is honey, it will still be reflected on the Nutrition Facts Label as an added sugar because it was not originally a part of the food item.
Look at the food label below. In this product, the total sugars are 12g and the added sugars are 10g. This means that in this food product 2g are naturally occurring and 10g were added at some point during processing, regardless of if the 10g comes from honey or from table sugar. Work with your Registered Dietitian to determine the amount of added sugar that’s best for your body.
Impact of Sugars on Our Health
Let’s follow that same ice cream treat from above to our gut, but this time it is made with real sugar. Again, our taste buds can’t tell the difference from real and artificial foods, but they know there is something sweet. This is where the brain takes over and sends a message down the vagus nerve to the gut to see what the consensus is: real or not?
The gut solves that this is real sugar and that the body is going to get some nutrients from this sweetness. It is satisfied and sends approval back to the brain.
Regarding our gut health when we eat sugar, a few studies shows that our gut is not altered as much when we eat real sugar versus artificial sweeteners. If we continue to eat high amounts of sugar consistently, then our healthy gut microbiota will start to die off; however, eating moderate amounts of real sugar most of the time will not impact our gut health negatively.
Pros and Cons of Sugar
- Our bodies run on sugar (glucose) for energy
- Natural sources have antioxidants and nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals
- Useful for baking
- Adds desire to our diet
- Added sugars can sneak in easily throughout the day
- Too much sugar can lead to high blood sugar, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, dental issues, elevated triglycerides, obesity
- Choose whole foods first for a sugar fix (i.e., sugar from sources like fruits, dairy products, 100% honey and maple syrup)
- Keep added sugars to less than 10% of total daily calories or about 24g/day
- Remember, sweet cravings are only truly satisfied through sugar intake, not with artificial sweetness
- Artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive and affect gut microbiome more easily than sugar
- The artificial sweeteners sucralose and saccharin may contribute to glucose intolerance
- If opting for artificial sweeteners, choose a more natural source like stevia or monk fruit and focus on more probiotic foods to build gut health and prebiotic foods to maintain gut health
- Read the Nutrition Facts Label for total sugars, added sugars, and ingredients
Post written by FFC Dietetic Intern Leah Kostos.