In the industry I work in, I find myself constantly surrounded by products all claiming to provide the user with maximum health benefits. However, 99% of these products also contain artificial sweeteners in an attempt to keep caloric intake low (because calories are king, right? Wrong). While the problems with these foods are usually quite obvious, the addition of the artificial sweeteners make them much worse. Much MUCH worse.
Artificial sweeteners are just that - artificial. They are NOT found in nature, and they are recognized by the body as a toxic, foreign substance. Our bodies are not designed to break down these chemicals, especially in the quantities we are consuming them on a daily basis (it adds up quickly, trust me). If you have creamer or a packet of artificial sweetener in your coffee (multiplied by the number of cups you have), a low fat yogurt, diet soda, granola bar, protein shake, or any other "healthy" product, you're probably consuming WAY more artificial sweeteners than you realize.
Artificial sweeteners can be broken up into different categories:
1. Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are hydrogenated forms of sugar and can be found naturally in very small amounts in fruit. However, most of these sugar alcohols are refined and purified to use as sweeteners in foods. Common names for these sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and erythritol.
Sugar alcohols aren't completely absorbed in the intestine when ingested, which can cause a host of digestive issues like gas, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea. This is due to their fermentable nature and interaction with our gut bacteria. There is also evidence that links xylitol and mannitol to breaking apart the gut lining creating a leaky gut, which, as we've previously discussed, is not good for overall health.
More studies need to be completed on sugar alcohols, but it is clear that they aren't ideal to consume on a regular basis.
2. Nonnutritive Sweeteners
Nonnutritive sweeteners taste sweet but do not provide calories to the body when ingested. These are the common artificial sweeteners we know such as acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. These sweeteners have been linked to a host of health issues, including obesity, inflammation (especially in the gut), and metabolic syndrome. They can also interfere with our hormones, even insulin which is normally only stimulated by glucose (real sugar) in our bloodstream. What can happen is that our bodies sense that something sweet has entered our body, and it starts the process of releasing insulin to take care of the glucose it expects to be in the bloodstream.
However, if there is no glucose in the bloodstream (which there wouldn't be in the case of consuming an nonnutritive sweetener), insulin isn't needed. But insulin can't just "leave the scene" without causing effects on the body's ability over time to respond to glucose in the blood stream. Basically, it's like the boy who cried wolf. The boy cried wolf so many false times that when there actually was a wolf, the shepherds didn't come. The same goes for insulin. If we call upon it so many times without glucose actually being present, eventually that mechanism will start to break down. What happens when our insulin response is impaired? Diabetes, hypo/hyperglycemia, neurological disease, and insulin resistance. It's not good.
What About Stevia?
Now where does stevia fall into all of this? Stevia has become quite the sweetener as of late, as it is sourced from the leaf of a plant. It takes sweet on the tongue, and small amounts are needed to bake. Plus, it contains no sugar. A win-win, right?
Stevia contains chemicals called steviol glycosides. There are ten of them total that contribute to stevia's sweet taste. Green leaf stevia products contain all ten while purified and modified forms isolate one or two of these steviol glycosides thereby denaturing the natural product.
There is evidence to show that high amounts of stevia can contribute to female fertility issues (the study was done in rats), hormonal imbalances, and may have an impart on gene mutation (which could increase the risk of cancer). However, this would require a very large consumption of stevia.
What does this mean for stevia lovers? Limit your usage and make sure that you are using the pure green leaf extract that is the dried and powdered leaves of the stevia plant. Do NOT use some modified or white form of stevia (namely Truvia). This is NOT the same as pure stevia (although it claims to be).
In summary, what can we take away from all of this information about artificial sweeteners? Our bodies are not meant to consume artificial sweeteners as they are not mechanically equipped with the correct metabolic breakdown and pathways. Our bodies know how to process real sugars that are found in nature from fructose, glucose, and sucrose. These are the sugars that are unmodified in the form of fresh fruit for instance. We are NOT meant to consume large amounts of fake sugars or processed and refined sugars as well (high fructose corn sugar, for instance). If we eat a diet full of animal protein, healthy fats, and vegetables along with small amounts of naturally occurring sugars, we can be assured that our health will be in its optimal state.