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Things you need to know about sugar substitutes

Updated: Oct 28, 2022 Print
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Sugar substitutes, also known as sweeteners, are substances that can enhance the sweetness of food. They are categorized as food additives. Over the past 100 years, sweeteners have been widely used in everyday foods and beverages. Commonly seen sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame and neotame. One way to group sweeteners is to look at whether the sweetener is natural or artificial according to their source. Another way of grouping sweeteners is to see whether they have nutritive value or not. Artificial sweeteners are cheap and cost-effective, and most sugar substitute foods on the market are made with artificial sweeteners.

A sugar substitute is not sugar, so why does it taste sweet? We can taste sweet beacuse chemical reactions take place when sweet substances touch sweet receptors on the taste buds of the tongue, which then sends signals to the brain about the taste.

Sugar substitutes are substances with a similar spatial structure to ordinary sugars, and they can activate the sweet taste receptors as well. The chemical reaction of sweet receptors caused by sugar substitutes is stronger than that of sugar, so the sweetness can reach tens, hundreds, or even thousands of times that of sugar. To achieve the same sweetness as white sugar, only a very small amount of sugar substitute needs to be added to food, which in turn greatly reduces the energy of the food.

For example, aspartame, whose chemical name is aspartame phenylalanine methyl ester, is formed by the condensation of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose.

Can sugar substitutes help reduce sugar intake?
The decomposition products of almost all non-nutritive sweeteners in human bodies do not contain glucose and do not directly participate in insulin secretion. Theoretically, non-nutritive sweeteners will not cause blood sugar to rise, therefore, their use would seem to cut the intake of sugar. However, long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners does not really help decrease your sugar intake. Sugar substitutes can't prevent you from consuming sweets. Although the desire for sweetness can be satisfied by sugar substitutes, your compensatory psychology may make you eat more of other foods recklessly, eventually resulting in more food consumption and obesity.

What are the effects of sugar substitutes on the human body?
Sugar substitutes impact the human body in many ways. Although sugar substitutes do not produce any energy, long-term excessive intake of them may have the following adverse effects:

First, too much consumption of sugar substitutes will affect hormone secretion in the body. Sugar substitutes have higher sweetness than regular sugar. When you eat them, the brain mistakenly thinks that the body has ingested a lot of sugar, so it starts to secrete insulin. However, when insulin increases to a certain amount without the expected glucose, the body's signal to secrete insulin becomes sluggish and cells become resistant to insulin, as a result, fat breakdown reduces and synthesis of fat increases, which leads to weight gain and blood sugar rise as well as obesity and diabetes.

Second, studies have found that some sugar substitutes may cause intestinal microbiota disorders. The intestinal microbiota need a stable environment to develop and help enhance the digestion and absorption functions of the gastrointestinal tract. Once sugar substitutes replace carbohydrates and glucose, those bacteria colonies that need glucose to maintain themselves will be replaced by miscellaneous bacteria. If things go on like this, the normal bacterial environment in the intestine will be compromised and constipation, diarrhea, indigestion and other problems may arise.

Third, sugar substitutes may be associated with an increased risk of cancer and death. Studies have shown that people who consume large amounts of artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame and acesulfame potassium, which are commonly used in soft drinks) have an increased risk of cancer. A cross-country study of more than 450,000 people published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the overall mortality rate of frequent soft drink consumers (more than 500 ml per day) is 17 percent higher than those who drink soft drinks the least (less than one glass per month, about 250 ml). It is worth noting that beverages with artificial sweeteners have a greater impact.

Can I eat as many sugar substitutes as I want?
Sugar substitutes are not necessarily sugar-free and cannot be eaten without restraint. Although foods with sugar substitutes on the market meet food safety standards, they are not healthy foods that can be eaten in large quantities for a long time. We must have a scientific and rational attitude towards sugar substitutes, and eat them in moderate amounts. For some special groups of people, sugar substitutes are a good choice. For example, for diabetic patients who are very eager for sweets, an appropriate amount of sugar substitutes can help them satisfy their cravings and make them happy. However, nutritive sugar substitutes, such as xylitol, are categorized as carbohydrate, which has little effect on blood sugar, but too much intake will bring health risks, especially for diabetics.

How should we choose sugar substitutes?
After being digested by the human body, aspartame will eventually be converted into phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol, which usually will not have too many negative effects on the human body. It should be noted, however, that patients with phenylketonuria cannot take phenylalanine. Pregnant women and children who have poor resistance and need enough nutrients for their immune system should limit or avoid use of sugar substitutes.

Diabetic patients can choose some natural non-nutritive sugar substitutes, such as stevia and mogroside, which are relatively safe. Natural sugar substitutes are sweet ingredients extracted from plants or microorganisms, and they are safer and can be eaten in moderate amounts by diabetics.

Sweet foods can help people relax and feel happy. It's safe to have some dessert, or occasionally try foods or drinks with sugar substitutes, but it's a different matter if we take too much. We need to look at sugar substitutes objectively, and eat them in a moderate and scientific way.

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