Content Last Updated March 2013
Recent reports state that Australians have reduced their sugar intake by 30% in recent years. Good for you I hear you say! But at what cost? We haven’t lost our sweet tooth, instead, we have replaced sugar with artificial sweeteners which carry no shortage of claims on their ill effects — ranging from Alzheimer’s, cancer, seizures, depression and blindness to name a few. What no one ever mentions is the cost to the environment. Maybe what we need to focus on is not what these sweeteners may be costing our health, but what they are costing our environment.
Environmental Impact of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial Sweeteners Cost The Environment
Doesn’t it seem absurd that we use scarce resources to concoct a fake sugar, only to put it into junk food and feed it to people who are overfed anyway? It takes a total of 6000 calories of energy to produce 1L of diet soft drink, compared to a normal soft drink which takes only 1400 calories of energy – that’s almost a 4 times bigger carbon footprint.
Artificial Sweeteners Use Genetically Modified Crops
The use of aspartame also contributes to the growing trend of genetically modified crops. Aspartame is made from the fermentation of corn and soy which are two of the biggest genetically modified crops (see post Genetically Modified Foods – What This Means For Your Health and The Health Of The Environment and Which Three Genetically Modified Foods Are Reaching Your Dinner Plate).
Artificially Sweetened Drinks and Packaging
While the packaging isn’t specific to artificially sweetened drinks, the encouraged consumption of them as a ‘free’ food does contribute to overconsumption.
- Plastic bottles – made from fossil-fuel,
- Glass bottles – twice the carbon footprint thanks to heavier transportation loads,
- Aluminum cans – not only contain the risky BPA (see post Why Is BPA Bad? Health and Environmental Concerns) but also contribute to the environmentally destructive aluminum mining industry which uses as much electricity as the entire continent of Africa.
Artificial Sweeteners and Diabetes
Artificial Sweeteners May Increase Hunger
Users of artificial sweeteners believe their use can reduce their overall caloric intake which leads to weight loss. On the other hand, many researchers believe they have the opposite effect on weight loss. Several studies have shown that the use of artificial sweeteners increases hunger. The mechanism is thought to be through tricking your brain into thinking you are consuming calories from sweet foods, only to trigger a need to fill this void of calories.
Artificial Sweeteners May Increase Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance means the insulin from your blood, can’t move the sugar into your cells where it can be used for energy. There are some great new studies done in mice that show that the use of some artificial sweeteners can disrupt the microbiome, making the mice more resistant to insulin.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Helpful For Diabetics?
So do we need them? Well maybe, diabetics on the verge of neuropathy (nerve damage) due to consistently high blood sugar levels may use artificially sweetened drinks to help wean them off sugar-packed sodas which may save their limbs.
Dangers of Aspartame
History of Aspartame
Our consumer skepticism may have come from the way aspartame was first passed for consumption in the USA in 1981. It has been speculated that after some studies had shown potential problems with a high intake of aspartame, the head of the FDA was sacked after he refused to approve it. His successor then passed regulations permitting aspartame and later accepted a job with the makers of the sweetener.
What Products Contain Aspartame?
Aspartame is the big one, the artificial sweetener that gets all the spotlight. Additive 951 is 200 times as sweet as sugar and is widely used in soft drinks, yogurt, chewing gum, chocolate and confectionery and as a powdered sweetener. Numerous health claims against the ill effects of aspartame can be found with the click of a mouse but unfortunately, none of the studies are conclusive (yet!).
Phenylketonuria And Aspartame
People with Phenylketonuria (PKU) have too much phenylalanine in their blood. While phenylalanine is an essential amino acid found in protein sources such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products, it is also one of the two ingredients of aspartame. Anyone with the condition isn’t able to process phenylalanine making aspartame highly toxic.
Better Alternatives to Aspartame And Other Artificial Sweeteners
Aspartame Vs Stevia
A newer addition to the market is Stevia which comes from a plant originating from South America. Stevia has been used in Japan for decades making up 40% of the sweetener market. Although it is 300 times as sweet as sugar, it has negligible effects on blood glucose levels, neither rising it nor lowering it.
Is Stevia Local?
The plant grows well in Queensland and NSW climate making it an appealing choice in terms of sustainability. You can grow your own stevia plant in your backyard. The leaves can be used to add to tea or other drinks, but are not concentrated enough for baking.
Using Stevia In Baking
Yes, stevia can be used in baking, but again comes the question, do we really need to be making junk food seem OK by adding low-calorie sweeteners to them?
“If you’re going to make jam or cakes or biscuits, you need the bulk of sugar as well as its sweetness, and because some of these concentrated sweetener products don’t have the bulkiness, they’ve got to use a horribly highly refined starch, which has the same calories as sugar anyway so they’re not better off.”
Rosemary Stanton- SMH
Natural Alternatives To Aspartame
One of my favourites is good old fashion honey. In its raw, organic state it contains antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and phytonutrients. It still has the calories but if used sensibly this lower glycemic index (GI) sweetener is a great alternative. Here are some of my favourite natural alternatives to aspartame:
- Honey, raw unpasteurized
- Maple syrup, pure
- Blackstrap Molasses
- Lucuma Powder
Even better, cut back on the honey and add cinnamon to breakfasts and smoothies to jazz them up a bit. Cinnamon has been shown to lower blood glucose levels- although you may need more than a sprinkle to see the benefits.
The science isn’t there to dispel the use of artificial sweeteners. If you are consuming a copious amount of sugar-sweetened sodas, the use of artificial sweeteners can be used as a stepping stone to decrease sugar consumption. There is no argument against the detrimental effects of artificial sweeteners on the environment, though, we still need some conclusive evidence on the long-term use of artificial sweeteners on our health. Stay tuned.
References For Why Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad For The Environment?
Website: SMH Is Nocalorie Substitute for Sugar Too Sweet To Be True
Blog: Eco-Etiquette-How Bad is Diet Coke for the Environment
Website: Food Politics-Artificial Sweeteners
Book: The Choice Guide to Food – Rosemary Stanton
Rachel Dickens is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University and is currently a PhD student at UBC. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on Indigenous Food Sovereignty while sharing diabetes-friendly recipes and tips for diabetes prevention.