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Artificial sweeteners: no sweet surprise here

Artificial sweeteners: no sweet surprise here

Artificial sweeteners shot to fame with its ‘zero-calorie’ credo. But experts say they are not as healthy as perceived
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Sugar has evolved to become an inextricable part of our diet. As the holiday season sets in, cakes, cookies and other irresistible desserts are bound to find a place at the dinner table. But wait, is there an option to skip the risks associated with sugar and yet enjoy the sweets?  

Taste influences human perception of food quality, contributing to overall pleasure and enjoyment. To that end, the development of sweeteners as food additives that mimic the sweetness of natural sugars appears promising.  

However, in the hope of saving months of effort in weight loss, many resort to the zero calorie artificial sweeteners. But, substituting these artificial chemicals for sugar without understanding their ill effects can further harm our health.  

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin have become particularly popular among weight watchers and people with diabetes. The upside is that they do not raise blood sugar levels and have low calories.  

Sudha Rani, a nutritionist from Bengaluru, says, “Numerous artificial sweeteners have been developed to mimic the sweet taste of sugar because of the bad name sugar has got over the years. They are frequently promoted as being good for weight loss because they are practically calorie-free.”  

What are they?  

Efforts to chemically synthesise sweeteners began with the discovery of saccharin in the late 1800s. Artificial sweeteners can be produced through plant extracts or chemical synthesis. They are commercially available in a wide range of forms, including small pills, powders, drops and packets.   

Artificial sweeteners aka “intense sweeteners” are called so because they are often a few hundred to thousand times sweeter than the natural ones. Even small amounts of these sweeteners can impart the desired flavour and, therefore, limit calories and sugar spikes.  

Aishwarya Ramesh, a nutritionist from Bangaluru, tells Happiest Health, “Some artificial sweeteners are not metabolised, which means they pass through the digestive tract largely undigested.”  

However, these sweeteners could alter the composition of bacteria in our gut as they pass through our intestines. They are named “non-nutritive sweeteners” given that they are neither digested nor provide any calorie benefits. 

A 2019 review article published in the Advances in Nutrition journal states that sweeteners like sucralose and saccharin can alter certain biological functions linked to glucose tolerance and create imbalance in our gut microbiome.   

The brighter side – we have healthy alternatives 

Mother Nature provides us with all the sugars we need and more! 

In a conversation with Ashana Chadda, a nutritionist from Bengaluru, we learn that sugars are naturally present in our food. Fructose gives fresh fruits their sweet taste. “By eating the whole fruit, you not only consume fructose but also fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that table sugar aka sucrose does not provide,” she adds.  

The upside of replacing sugar with natural sweeteners such as date sugar or raw honey in your morning tea is that they provide other nutrients as well unlike sugar, which is empty calories. Raw honey contains flavonoids, which is high in antioxidants and has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Date sugar (grounded dry dates) is also high in antioxidants and has the added benefit of fibre. However, moderation is essential. 

If you are looking for flavourful options for your cakes, try coconut sugar. The earthy flavours of coconut sugar can add a new dimension to the food dishes while it retains the nutrients of a coconut. What is more, it contains inulin fibre that helps our digestive health thrive better. 

Jaggery which is another feasible option, is a powerhouse of essential vitamins, minerals, irons, and antioxidants due to its unrefined form”, adds Chadda. Experts also note that eating a piece of jaggery after one’s meals also help to activate one’s digestive enzymes and improve haemoglobin levels.  

Fig also consists of simple carbohydrates that are easily broken down and doesn’t cause sugar spikes unlike processed sugar,” says Chadda.  

We hope you enjoy this festive season and start the new year with desserts such as fig halwa, date laddoos, and coconut cakes minus the sugar.   

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